The morning after ...

The morning after …

The murderer was clearly in the volcano. Our heroes, having been asked to go and find him, set off up the mountainside to the location of his victim, from whence they hoped to track him. Now they were joined by Grunstein the wizard, who had travelled ahead to Steamline Spa on his own business. The slopes of the volcano loom over the northern side of Steamline Spa, and take some hours to climb to the misty summit; but all these slopes were smooth and perfect as an old Emperor’s burial mound, and a smooth path wound up the sides of the volcano, through fields scattered with sheep and dour shepherds. Brom Barca’s attempts to buy sheep having been rudely rebuffed, the group trudged on without incident until they reached the murder scene, a smear of blood and gore behind one of the volcano’s scattered basalt boulders. Rounding the rock, they found a scene of horror: the body of the dead shepherd had been torn apart and scattered across the land behind the boulder, disfigured so thoroughly and violently that it was almost impossible to say how the victim had died. Nonetheless, Leticia the elven swordmaster was able to piece together the clues; the attack had started with a sudden strike of the shepherd’s head against the boulder, and the shepherd had then been mercilessly mutilated while he yet lived. There was evidence that he had been drugged – perhaps with a soporific called Poggle’s Drakeboon – in order to ensure his unhappy compliance with his own dismal destruction. They could not find the head, though the ears were resting on a ledge of the boulder …

Having established they were most certainly dealing with a murder, the PCs set off up the mountainside to catch this evil Otto Mercads. Grunstein employed a new spell to transform himself into a wolf, and easily followed the scent of death and terror up the mountainside. They marched for another hour or so, into the mists that surrounded the top of the volcano. Here was a caldera, surrounded by high but broken walls of old volcanic stone. A narrow crevasse ran through the caldera wall, and they found themselves looking inside the volcano. The caldera was a rough bowl shape, filled with steam and a gentle rain from the higher steam as it emerged from the caldera to suddenly cool in the mountain air. A narrow path ran down from their crevasse to the bottom of the bowl, but it was impossible to see where it ended due to the steam billowing around the caldera. They reached the caldera a little after midday, so the bright mountain sunlight was streaming in great golden lances through the steam, but it was obvious that in just an hour or two this cloistered feature would be shrouded in clammy darkness as its walls cut out the sun. Realizing it best to do battle in the bright noon light, Azahi the dwarf marched forth down the narrow path. The others followed, and as they approached the bottom of the path they could hear the sounds of manic laughter echoing off the walls.

At the bottom of the path they found a small, neatly laid-out camp under a lean-to, with the shepherd’s severed head in pride of place in the middle. The steam parted for them as they fanned out in the caldera, revealing a large central pool of nearly-boiling water. A large stone jutted into the pool, and on this outcrop they could see Otto Mercad’s crouched and chuckling, painting pictures of blood with a loop of intestine and talking to himself. They approached carefully but he did not seem to care, and just laughed manically as they grabbed him, beat him a little, and tied him up.

Too easy. Just a few hours later they were leaving Steamline Spa with Otto chained in an empty wine barrel out of sight of prying eyes in their wagon …

The storm and the Drowning Well

That day’s travel was uneventful, but towards evening a vicious storm rolled in off the mountains, and they found themselves being pummeled by howling winds and heavy rain. Fortunately they had been told of an inn along the road, that most travelers a day out of Steamline Spa could expect to lodge at for the night. They redoubled their pace to this tavern, passing as they did a band of four road-wardens who had been called out in the inclement weather to attend a possible beastman raid. They were also surprised by a bounty hunter called Elizabeth, who emerged from the shadows of an old redgum to ask for their company on the final kilometre to the inn. She told them her horse had been lamed in the storm and, having killed it, she was walking to the inn to pick up the tail of her targets, two bandits who she had a mark on. A dour and tough-looking woman, she seemed more than capable of killing a horse and capturing two ruffians. All travellers on the road were focused now on the inn and respite from the rain, so few questions were asked; instead, they all slogged on through the gathering gloom, the howling winds and the mud.

By the time they arrived it was not yet sunset, but the storm was so intense that it had blocked out most of the light, and they arrived at the gates of the inn feeling as if it were already late. Grunstein the wizard had transformed into a raven and flown ahead, so he missed the strange arcane markings daubed on the wall by the gate, and none of the other PCs were able to decode them. Against the backdrop of the raging storm they pushed their way through the rain-soaked doors of the inn compound, and found themselves lodging within.

The inn was a large complex, consisting of a central three-storey mansion surrounded by stables, outhouses and gardens. The whole was ringed by a wall just over 2m high, made of dressed stone and thick enough both to repel any serious attempt at battery and to enable defenders standing atop the wall to fight back from crenelations. This kind of travelers rest is a common sight in the wilder fringes of civilization in the Steamlands, where local farmers are used to the predations of greenskins and, occasionally, beastmen. When a band is spotted approaching the neighbouring farms they lock up and flee to the travelers rest, from where they join together to fight off any siege and wait for roadwardens from other towns to relieve them. Like fighting summer fires, community defense is something that all remote farming hamlets practice at, and the scattered houses around the Drowning Well were no different, so it was no surprise to the PCs to find such a staunchly defensible tavern so far from civilization.

So, the PCs ducked into the tavern and booked a night’s accomodation, and a cellar for Otto Mercads. The cellar was as safe as a prison cell, pre-fit with chains and a portcullis that locked only from the outside, as well as a staunch outer door that only a minotaur could smash through. The Drowning Well was obviously used to hosting its share of passing prisoners, because the landlord locked Mercads down in this hole without a single word of complaint, and the group were able to repair quickly to drinking and relaxing. The evening passed uneventfully, and after a few hours’ rest the PCs were able to retire for a long, relaxing sleep.

The murders begin

The PCS were woken by the maid’s screams during the dead of night. The storm was still raging outside, but the maid was so disturbed that her anguished cries could be heard over the racket of howling wind, driving rain and banging shutters. Of course our heroes ran into the hallway to see the problem, and found themselves facing a familiar scene of horror: one of the guest rooms was open, and the occupant had been murdered in a very familiar way – the same way as Otto Mercad’s victim. There was blood and body parts everywhere, and guests gathering in the darkened hall to retch and cry in horror at the sight. The PCs, along with Elizabeth the bounty hunter, took charge, shepherding the guests downstairs to the common room and rushing to check on Mercads. They found Mercads sitting comfortably in his cell, chuckling and grinning and with not a drop of blood on him. How had he done it?

Other murders soon followed, with the maid, the landlord and his wife quick to succumb to some kind of brutish and supernatural force. Every time the murder was so reminiscent of Mercads’ artwork that the PCs just had to return to his cell to watch him, but the third time they returned they found him, too, dead, torn apart in the same way as the others. However this time they were fast enough to see the killer – a grotesque, incorporeal ghost, 3m tall and shaped like a beastman with a single eye. They attacked the ghost but it fled too fast, disappearing through a wall and out into the wilds of the night. Shocked, they realized that Mercads must have been the channel or conduit for some darker creature. They remembered finding a necklace made of a fleck of old beastman’s tusk when they captured him, and wondered if he might have been somehow connected with this ghost. While some of the PCs rushed to protect the guests in the common room, Gregor dashed to their own room to check on the chaos artifacts they were transporting to Heavenbalm, lest that should prove to be this beastman ghost’s true focus.

The ghost wasn’t there though, it was gone … but the beastmen were coming.

Artuta rises ...

Artuta rises …

The beastmen come

Shortly after they saw the beastman ghost, the PCs heard yells and clamour from the front door. Residents from nearby farmhouses were gathering at the gate, telling urgent stories of a new horror: a horde of beastmen was gathering in the darkness to attack the inn. As they filed in, bedraggled and dishevelled from the storm, they and the residents began to prepare for a siege. The PCs, however, were distracted by a light in the corner of the compound. Approaching, they saw the vague outline of a ghostly form, glowing faintly and flickering in the onslaught of rain and wind. This was no beastman, but the remnant form of a witch hunter, obviously injured and looking desperate, and wearing clothes from a previous generation – the ghost of someone with something important to tell them? As they approached the ghost whispered to them with a voice that carried despite the snatching wind and rolling thunder:

The truth is beneath the words. The truth …

With these words he disappeared, revealing a slab of stone, scoured clean of earth by the rain and wind, on which a short passage was inscribed:

Here lies Artuta,

Most twisted of the changer’s brood,

Cleansed by Solkan’s hands.

He will not be the last.

The PCs dug up the stone quickly, and beneath it they found a waterproof scrollcase, laid carefully in a hollow beneath the stone. Dashing out of the rain, they opened the case to find a torn piece of parchment, on which someone’s story was written:

I do not know why I have written this but I feel death is close. Artuta stares up at me. His one eye is still, but maybe it watches. Foolish thoughts, but in the forest lurk the remains of his band, now led by the Shaman Grazzt. He has strange dark powers at his call. Who knows what he can do?

What has brought this disquiet upon me? I cannot say, although a strange dream came to me last night. I was guarding Artuta even though he lies dead. Even in death, he led them. Yet I could not escape from this task for a wall surrounded me on all sides, a tunnel above through which I could see the stars. It was difficult to move, for my limbs were heavy.

This vision fills me with fear.

May Solkan watch over me.

Were these the words of the ghostly witch hunter?

At this point the party fragmented. Gregor fled back to his room and began a frenzied effort to destroy the amulet of the beastman tooth; Leticia and Brom Barca headed to the walls to coordinate the defense of the inn against the gathering horde of beastmen, who could now be heard outside the walls howling and preparing their attack; and Azahi the dwarven Trollslayer ran with Grunstein the wizard to the well after which the inn was named. Azahi had interpreted the “tunnel above through which I could see the stars” as the well, and wished to explore it. As he and Grunstein lowered themselves into the well they heard behind them the first roars of beastmen preparing for battle…

Born under a subterranean star ...

Born under a subterranean star …

The well and the battle

In the well Azahi and Grunstein found a tunnel leading into the earth below the inn. They followed it inward, Grunstein lighting the way with a cantrip, and soon found a locked stone door, on which a clear warning was written:

Ye thatz enter here, beware

For liez here, Artuta

When he rizes

Come hiz brood

To spill the blood of all.

The door was locked, and neither Grunstein nor Azahi a thief, but Azahi managed to remember a few hints of technical trickery from his dwarven tribe and disabled the lock. They opened the door to find a crypt, rough-hewn from the earth. In the centre was a depression covered in brush and rubbish; leaning against the walls of the room were four skeletons of beastmen. The mark of Tzeentch was carved into the wall at the far side of the room, and it was obvious what this room was – the resting place of something called Artuta, probably an ancient and powerful beastman. Grunstein began breaking up the first beastman skeleton, but before he had done much damage the other three came to life and attacked Azahi. The dwarf braced himself, and battle was joined; but as he fought the ghost of Artuta arose from the central resting place and fled out of the door. Both he and Grunstein struck at it, but their attacks failed to kill it, though they seemed to wound it badly. The ghost was now obviously more corporeal, gaining in power from the murders it had managed to commit, but still able to shift to ghost form, in which shape it drifted rapidly down the tunnel and out of the well into the stormy night.

Upstairs, the beastmen had begun to gather together for battle. Their force was far larger than a normal beastman band, numbering perhaps 30 in all and with four beastman captains. Lurking at the rear near some kind of makeshift altar was a strange figure indeed – a smaller beastman similar in appearance to a Gor and lacking full horns, unarmed and dressed in tattered cloth but obviously in charge despite its small size. As Brom Barca and Leticia watched, this figure was joined by the ghost of Artuta the beastman, and the attack began.

The inn compound had two gates, and the beastmen attacked both at once. Their attack was artless and brutal. A beastman captain charged forward, and used his enormous strength to boost a couple of Gor onto the walls; these then hauled the massive captain on, and they attacked. Meanwhile a gang of larger Gors lined up and took turns charging at the main gate, trying to smash it in with their horns. By this means, should the captain fail to seize the wall itself, his minions would still eventually beat down the gates. Unfortunately for this beastman captain and his Gor minions, Leticia and Brom Barca guarded the gates; Brom himself almost the size of a Gor took on the three minions, and Leticia moved forward to engage the captain, fighting with delicate poise and grace despite the slippery stones, the howling wind and the beating rain. The battle was short but brutal, and within a few short exchanges Brom and Leticia had slain their enemies. Leticia hacked off the head of the slain captain, and as Brom Barca lifted it high for all the beastmen to see the captain at the other gate began a temporary retreat. At this point Gregor joined them on the wall, scattering the fragments of the beastman amulet before him into the wind. This seemed to have no effect – the distant shaman ignored it, and Artuta’s flickering form did not change except to howl in rage at the retreating beastmen. Now Azahi and Grunstein also trudged up onto the wall through the rain, and our heroes grouped together ready to receive the next charge.

As the beastmen milled about, preparing to make a new attack and being berated, beaten and enraged by their captains, Gregor remembered the Hochland long rifle he had looted from bandits on the journey to Steamline Spa. Though the ghost of Artuta was far from the walls and beyond easy range of a crossbow or longbow, it was not beyond the reach of a long rifle, and Artuta was obviously injured. Perhaps if Gregor were lucky … he carefully lined up the rifle, Brom Barca and Leticia holding their cloaks over him to try and prevent the worst of the rain from damping his powder. He fired as the beastmen formed their lines for another charge, and his bullet flew true … with a single howl of outrage and shock, Artuta’s ghost dissolved into the storm, vanquished by the witch hunter. The beastman shaman took one look back at the walls, screamed his rage to the uncaring tempest, and without further ado turned to flee into the distant woods. His followers, seeing the destruction of their plan, lost all their lust for battle and fled after him.

The battle was done. The beastmen had failed to break the gate, and Artuta had been killed before they could drag any prisoners back to sacrifice for his manifestation. Whatever sick plot had been laid to wait here in the courtyard of the drowning well, it was done now. Though the PCs had inadvertently brought about the invocation of Artuta’s ghost by bringing Otto Mercads to the inn, they had triumphed over Artuta and his whole tribe. They could rest, and enjoy the reward of heroes. And heroes they must be, for in the morning they must surely head off in pursuit of the shaman, to uncover the full story of how Otto Mercads had become the kingpin in a plot to bring back an undead beastman; and to slay the shaman before he could foment more mischief. Perhaps in those hills they could find more dark magic to take to Heavenbalm for destruction … or perhaps there they would find their doom …

Brom Barca at the docks

Brom Barca at the docks

There are secrets in Separation City, but our heroes cannot plumb their depths from the confines of that small town – they must at some point follow the clues they have toward Heavenbalm and Store. Though they could stay a little longer to explore Separation City for further clues, our heroes now find themselves in possession of items of deep evil – a fragment of warpstone and a vile book of darkness – that they must take to Heavenbalm soon, before the essences of chaos should corrupt someone anew. They must also find a powerful priest who has some special blessings, that their minds can be put at ease from the horrors they have seen in these past months. With this in mind they decided to temporarily take their leave of Separation City, and head northwest to Heavenbalm. There they would destroy the evil items they had gathered, find ease in Sigmar’s peace, and investigate – probably brutally – the associates of the wizard they just recently vanquished in the crypts of Separation City.

Before they left though, our group of adventurers decided who would stay in Separation City, and who would venture forth. The journey to Heavenbalm is some 7 days in good weather, and knowing our party’s penchant for getting side-tracked in the war against evil, it seemed wise to expect the same band of adventurers would be together for some time. The newly-formed band included two new adventurers, once again introduced to the party by their patron, Baroness von Jungfreud. Four stalwart souls elected to leave the dubious sanctuary of Separation City:

  • Gregor Thornton, the witch-hunter who carried the evil items
  • Azahi, the dwarven troll-slayer, who would set out with the party in a covered wagon, so great was the affliction of his insanity
  • Brom Barca, human pit-fighter, a veritable giant of a man on a quest to find the only pit-fighter who ever beat him (and that through treachery)
  • Leticia, elven sword-master, of mysterious purpose as are all of her kind

Brom and Leticia were introduced to the party by von Jungfreud, and it was at this final meeting that the PCs were able to learn some things about her and her husband’s past that might in future help them to understand the importance of Separation City.

Meeting with Baroness von Jungfreud

With the spring weather becoming finer and warmer after the closing of the wattle-viewing season, Baroness von Jungfreud invited our heroes for a small party on her private yacht, perhaps also to do a little whale watching. With the sun glinting on the still waters of Separation Bay, a gentle breeze blowing through the canopied deck of her pretty little yacht, Baroness von Jungfreud treated our heroes to a fine repast of roasted meats, raw fish eaten fresh-landed and still dancing on the plate, bowls of preserved lilly-pillies, and rice wine in capacious quantities. As they ate and drank she freely answered all their questions, and the PCs learnt many things about her and her dead husband Mattix’s past:

  • Mattix was heir to a farming demesne in the sunlit highlands between Store and Heavenbalm. It was inland, on the slopes of Realmsight Mountain, in an area of rich forests and rice farms, and he stood to live a long, boring and healthy life taxing the local farmers
  • He never gave a clear reason for the move, except that he thought there were better prospects in Separation City – to do with trade between Dwarves, the Palace Cape and also opening up the inland
  • It was Mattix who set about establishing the Dwarven trading post and community. He employed a Dwarven architect, Archaex, to help build the ship spire and the associated underground storage and power source. He may still have the plans to it, and certainly still has the communications with the Dwarf amongst his personal possessions
  • Mattix had contacts in Store and Heavenbalm
  • Occasionally Mattix visited Store, always without the Baroness, and she thinks that he maybe had a lover there.

By the end of the meal they had come to understand that Mattix von Jungfreud had some plans involving the dwarves, and to know more about his past they would need to find this Dwarven architect Archaex. Baroness von Jungfreud, the dutiful wife and society socialite, gave no indication that she had any knowledge of whatever secrets his plans contained. They would need to investigate his lover, and his contact Archaex, to learn more.

But first, they needed to find solace and redemption at Heavenbalm, so they took their leave of Baroness von Jungfreud and headed into the hills


Springing the trap

Springing the trap

Their journey would take them through Steamline Spa – about two days’ journey from Separation City – and then on to Heavenbalm, another three days’ journey beyond that. The roads in spring were easily passable and smooth, so they took with them a wagon, holding their travel supplies and their dwarf, inchoate with crawling terrors after the undead near feasted on him. The first day of their journey was uneventful, but on the second day they came upon a strange and sinister tableaux. At this point the road parted around a small satoyama, with the main road continuing to the northwest but a small, disused trail cutting left from the road to ascend the satoyama in switchbacks. A crumbling and fading shrine gate on this smaller road pointed to a disused shrine in the heart of the satoyama, but the switchbacks were overgrown and obviously unused. To the left of the road and behind them were loose and scrubby eucalypt forest; to their right, open land leading to a small stream, which was surrounded by reeds and thick grasses. In the junction of the road, where the smaller path split from the main road, lay a fallen horse and rider, both clearly dead. The PCs stopped their wagon and horses and approached the bodies to investigate, leaving their dwarf rambling to himself in the wagon. They tried to see where the body had come from, how long it was dead, and what killed it, but none of them had any facility with medicine, and perhaps the bright sun had already begun its hideous work on the corpse. Brom Barca noticed, however, that the horse’s saddlebags seemed full of coin, and all three of our heroes descended with glee upon the corpse.

It was as they began to tear open these saddlebags that the bushrangers sprung their trap. Small squads of archers appeared simultaneously from the streamside, the forest behind the wagon, and the switchbacks on the satoyama. Each squad had three archers and a leader: a wizard on the hillside, some thug with a long rifle in the trees, and a sword-armed maniac in the stream. Caught on all sides in a hail of gunfire, our party had to act fast. Gregor moved to the edge of the path and opened fire upon those attacking from the stream; Brom Barca hauled his huge body up the switchbacks of the satoyama, charging through loose scrub and undergrowth with roaring, frenzied abandon; Leticia moved to engage the archers from the forest as they dropped their crossbows and charged to close combat.

Things did not go well at first, though. Brom Barca was caught in entangling vines by the wizard’s magic; Leticia was forced to cut and run in the face of superior numbers; and Gregor found himself sorely pressed and beaten back by the force of his enemies. As Leticia ran she was cut down with arrows, but the archers left her to deal with Brom Barca, who soon hauled himself from his entanglement and slew the offending wizard, spattering his fellows with gore and causing them to flee. Gregor, it seemed, would be surrounded and cut down like a dog, but the sounds of battle roused Azahi from his insanity and, stumbling from the wagon, he engaged Leticia’s foes before they could reach Gregor. This gave Brom Barca time to return to the fray, and soon the tide turned: all the bushrangers died like pigs at a slaughterhouse, Brom Barca laughing with joy as their blood spattered his apron and smeared his face, and Gregor pale-faced and grim with the dark job of stabbing, smashing and shooting. Then the job was done, Leticia rescued from a bad fate, the dwarf Azahi regaining enough poise to return to future battles, and Brom Barca bloodied, joyous with the thrill of murder done righteously.

They chased the remaining few bandits to the abandoned shrine, where they found them taking cover behind a wagon at the entrance, firing down the path at the party. Brom Barca cared not for the sting of bolts, though, and charged forward, his huge bulk hitting the wagon with such force that it overturned, splintering, and crushed the last three men beneath it. Then it was a simple job of jumping on the wagon, driving its splintered axle and wheel-frames into the pinned and desperate bandits until they writhed no more, and their blood consecrated the entry of the shrine: a bloody and frenzied chozubachi this. Once Brom Barca had spilt the blood on his hands and face, he entered the shrine to see if anyone else dared worship at the altar of death; but none were there. So they looted the bandits temple, and continued on their way to Steamline Spa.

The murderer of the caldera

When they reached Steamline Spa they handed in evidence of the dead bandits, and found accomodation in a fine hotel near the central lake. They were soon approached by an elder of the town, Merschak the steward, who asked them to attend to a delicate matter: a murderer called Otto Mercads, last son of a noble house, had returned to Steamline Spa and begun his horrific killings again. So far no one in the town knew except Merschak and the local lord, and they wanted some out-of-towners with a good reputation to go and find Mercads, and bring him back alive. Once caught, Merschak wanted the PCs to escort Otto to Heavenbalm, where he would again be locked up in a secure place far from harm – being a scion of a wealthy family, he could not be subjected to the rough justice of commoners, but would be locked away from the rest of the world for good. For finding him and taking him to Heavenbalm, the PCs would be paid 5 gold each.

The PCs agreed, and said they would seek out Otto the next morning. His victim had been found on the slopes of Mount Steamline, and it seemed likely he was hiding in the caldera; they must travel up the mountain the next day and find him. So bid, they agreed to the deal, and settled down for a pleasant and restful sleep, free of dreams and worries …

(Picture credit: the image of Brom Barca is by Guilherme Formenti)

Yesterday I GM’d a session of Warhammer 3rd Edition (WFRP 3), the next instalment in the Steamlands Campaign, but this time due to a lack of space and the ongoing fragmentation of my card collection I decided to implement some of the ideas I’ve been working on to simplify WFRP 3. Today we used the following:

  • Drop all active defenses and basic melee combat cards
  • Drop all more complex action cards that don’t involve a unique benefit: so e.g. Thunderous Blow is out, but Riposte is kept (since it gives a second attack)
  • Calculate combat difficulty from attributes, instead of using “one challenge die plus defense” rules
  • Allow players to use all their talent cards, not just the slotted ones
  • Make exhaustable talents a once-per-encounter phenomenon (most encounters being less than 5 rounds anyway)
  • Enhance fortune points: they now add expertise rather than fortune dice
  • Allow the expenditure of fatigue to gain bonus fortune dice
  • Fortune and misfortune dice cancel before rolling, to simplify dice pools
  • Number of successes on a melee attack acts as a damage bonus
  • Critical cards are for fluff only: all criticals are simply a +1 difficulty (i.e. one misfortune die) per critical suffered
  • Enemies also suffer criticals

Two players made new PCs for this session, so they selected only action cards that give an identifiable non-attack effect in combat. Cards selected were:

  • Riposte, which enables a free melee attack in response to a missed attack
  • Counterblow, which does the same for someone blocking
  • Twin pistols, which I now treat as a special ability (it has no recharge): add one challenge die to the dice pool to attack with two pistols
  • Who’s next? Which gives allies additional attacks or enables a cleave-like attack after killing someone
  • Berzerker Rage, which should be fairly obvious
  • Combat focus, which gives the user a bonus on attack rolls (not damage)

These cards enable the players to have more freedom to act and special benefits in combat, rather than simply making them do more damage or adding conditions as after-effects of successful attacks.

The result of this was a faster, more dynamic combat scene. The revised rules encouraged use of fortune points and fatigue, and made managing fatigue more crucial; big dice pools enable greater damage (there is no 3-success limit to damage as occurs on the cards), so in one case I think the biggest warrior did 17 points of damage (and one enemy bandit nearly did the same). The combat was over in four rounds but was just as dangerous: all three PCs were critically injured, one was unconscious and one incurred a temporary insanity. The whole battle – between three PCs and 12 enemies in an ambush from three directions, with one group fleeing and having to be chased – took just one hour (or maybe less) and everyone was able to stay focused through the whole thing. Managing enemies was much easier for me, since I didn’t have to worry about cards and the like. There was no faffing at the end of rounds, as I think only two cards (Berzerker Rage and Combat Focus) needed to have recharge tokens removed, and there was no fussing with talent cards or active defenses. Calculating hit targets was easy – players just tell me their attribute and defense score – and converting misfortune dice into challenge dice (at two-for-one rates) reduced dice pool sizes. The increased numbers of challenge dice also increased the number of chaos stars, so at last someone’s black powder weapon blew up[1].

I think the revised rules will also make enemies slightly more dangerous if they have attributes much bigger than the PCs, which means forces will be more evenly matched. For example, one bandit had a strength of 5 that he could use to defend with, which in the revised rules means 2 challenge dice and one misfortune die added to the dice pool. For an attacker with strength less than 5 this is going to be a tough target, and in fact in order to kill this guy the players had to use fatigue and fortune points to bolster attacks. Under the standard rules this guy would have been no more difficult to hit than any of his minions, and making him harder to hit would require me faffing with a variety of action cards.

Although I’m not fully assured of its effect on game balance, I like the effect of simplification on combat flow. I’m thinking of dropping armour-based defense scores too (making armour provide only soak values) to further simplify the combat resolution task. I’m also watching the revised collection of action cards to see if they’re worth the effort. But as a first attempt at speeding up and streamlining WFRP 3, the changes seem to have worked, and rescued the game from being crushed under the weight of its own innovations.

fn1: actually now I think about it, in the standard rules it is almost impossible for a black powder weapon to blow up. Most are Unreliable 2, which means you need two chaos stars to blow them, but chaos stars only occur on challenge dice and in most ranged combat situations you will only ever throw one challenge die. The standard rules make the difficulty of a ranged combat attack 1 challenge die + 1 misfortune per point of defense, so unless you’re using a card with additional challenge dice (of which there are few) you will never bow up your weapon.

Approaching the crypt at dusk

Approaching the crypt at dusk

When last we left our PCs they had cleared out a goblin nest near their onsen, at great personal cost to Azahi the Troll-slayer, and put paid to a potential threat to their new demesne. Upon returning to the onsen they were called back to Separation City by Baroness von Jungfreud and, after a day of rest and healing for poor Azahi, they returned to town. This time they took with them Grunstein, the Jade order mage, who had recovered from his case of hideous Blacklegge disease.

When they returned to Separation City Baroness von Jungfreud arranged to meet them for a picnic, perhaps her last of the spring. As is typical for such a notable’s picnic, she had brought with her several servants, a fire to cook upon, and even a small tent beneath which to retire from the sun. She had also brought with her a scraggly, wild-eyed man in a battered hat and leathers, who traveled under the name Gregor Thorveld and claimed to be one of that rare and feared breed, a witch-hunter. Judging by his nervous manner, continually jittering eyes and uncertain speech he was either constitutionally a coward, or had seen far too many witches.

The Baroness's servants prepare the picnic

The Baroness’s servants prepare the picnic

Baroness von Jungfreud told the characters that there were rumours of disturbance in the graveyard, that one of the graveyard guards had been ambushed with a rusty old arrow and that she wanted them to investigate. The graveyard had been used to bury the victims of the recent plague – about 50 to 100 in all – and she was worried that the PCs had failed to kill off all the plague cultists. Perhaps one had stolen back into the graveyard and was hiding there amidst the corpses of his victims? When asked why the victims had not been burnt, Baroness von Jungfreud somewhat sheepishly confessed that in fact the town Physician had overseen the burial … that same town Physician, of course, who was working for the plague cult. Thus all the groundwork had been laid for even a minor functionary of the cult to dig up some hunk of ghoulpox’d rotten corpse and dump it in the water supply – again.

It was then that she introduced Gregor, who she assured them sternly would help them to make up for any mistakes they had made in eradicating the cult. Through clenched teeth they introduced themselves, and discovered that he had come to Separation City on the strength of rumours of chaos and murder, and had offered to aid Baroness von Jungfreud as part of his role as a witch hunter. The town currently lacking any sturdy fighters, she had agreed to take him on and would send him with the PCs. Although she was dismissive and hypocritical about the responsibility for the plague cult survivor, she did give some implicit indication that she understood her responsibility – she offered them 5 gold coins each to clear the graveyard, a huge amount for such a simple task. Assured of reward, they set off immediately.

Separation City graveyard is separated from the town by some distance, and set on a hillside that backs onto the forested mountains beyond. It is surrounded by the typical wall that surrounds any Steamlands graveyard, about 4 metres high and designed to be hard to scale from the inside. This graveyard had two entrances, one main entrance facing the Iron Ring section of town (distantly visible to the south) and one, higher up along the wall near the end of the cemetery, that was much smaller, much less secure, and opened to a small path that led to a “secret hot spring,” a hot spring that has no real facilities and is used in the open air by anyone who cares to visit. Why this was located in the graveyard was a mystery to everyone, but the PCs immediately recognized the risk – the plague cult seemed to have a thing for causing trouble in hot springs. They had the town guards bar the main gates and set forth for the hot spring. By the time they had arranged all the details it was dusk, but they didn’t let this deter them, and approached the spring.

The spring itself was just a small pool, perhaps thrice as long as it was wide and large enough for four people to bathe together. On one side was a rundown shack; on the other, thick bushes. As they investigated the spring Grunstein noted a disturbance in the Winds of Magic, and was able to warn the rest of the group before a spirit manifested over the pool and drifted forward to the attack.

The battle was over quickly. The spirit attacked Azahi but could not harm him, and the four of them soon dispatched it, though its ethereal form made it hard for their weapons to hit it. Finally Grunstein’s magic dart destroyed it, and it drifted away in a cloud of sparkling motes. The place from hence it had come was now revealed to be an opening in the woods, with a narrow and overgrown path leading further up the hill. This path had obviously been hidden by some kind of illusion that the spirit’s presence maintained; with the spirit gone they were able to see the path. The path itself had obviously not been used for a long time, and was covered in vines and brush. Somewhere down that path in the gloom, Laren thought she saw movement. After a pause to gather their thoughts, they plunged into the path.

After about 30 metres the path veered left and out of sight beyond thick brush. As they approached the corner two skeleton archers emerged from the shadows of the trees ahead. One fired two arrows at Azahi in rapid succession, hitting him in chest and shoulder; the other did the same at Gregor, hitting him once. Laren returned fire and they charged into battle, again rapidly destroying their enemy. These enemies carried arrows that appeared similar to those described by the graveyard guards. Obviously they were getting closer.

Moving further along the path after only the briefest of pauses, the characters saw a rundown and overgrown crypt ahead of them. Laren approached stealthily, finding the door open. From within came the smell of roasting flesh and incense, accompanied by a querulous voice chanting rhythmically and beating some form of small drum. As the others cautiously approached she moved to the doorway and looked in upon a horrifying sight.

The inside of the crypt contained a large sarcophagus at one end, and several smaller sarcophagi upright around the walls. Hanging from one of these on a portable umbrella hook was a coat and hat. On the main sarcophagus was a collection of magical paraphernalia: burning incense, a silver dagger, some gems, candles, a shrivelled newt. Facing them but some distance away stood a tall, angular man in a perfect threepiece suit, fob-watch in pocket, monocle in one eye. In front of him was a strange device, a kind of travelling lectern such as some preachers or musicians sometimes use, made of polished brass and obviously quite expensive, robust enough to hold a large book from which the man was reading. Between this scene of scholarly fastidiousness and the somewhat chaotic collection of magic items on the sarcophagus a magic circle had been painted on the floor in blood. Inside the circle a small child roasted on a spit over a small fire, still vaguely alive and burbling and gasping its last horrified breaths. A small skeletal familiar turned the spit rhythmically.

Laren gasped in horror and opened fire on the wizard. As he turned to face her, hideous beasts materialized from the gloom. Two crypt ghouls came prowling out from behind the sarcophagus and shambled forward to the attack; a darker, more terrifying spirit form coalesced near Laren and drifted forward to strike at her. Battle was joined. Gregor moved forward to take a shot at the ghouls but was so horrified by what he saw that he turned and fled. Azahi charged forward to attack the ghouls but was also shaken by the horror of the scene, and so terrified of the undead and enraged that he opted instead to strike at the wizard. As he did so a ghoul leapt on his back and began gnawing at him, digging closer and closer to his jugular with its teeth. Overwhelmed by the terror and burdened by the weight of magic and beast, he fought poorly and increasingly desperately. Grunstein helped as he could, his powers bolstered by drawing on a shard of wyrdstone that lay on the sarcophagus, but he had to leave to support Laren as she withdrew across the overgrown path. She and Grunstein prepared to sell their lives dearly in the gloom of the path, facing up against the Cairn Wraith and one ghoul. Grunstein was close to death when Gregor, regretting his flight, returned to the fray and helped to dispatch their enemies. Inside, Azahi managed to slay the wizard, shake off the ghoul and destroy it; but so desperate and exhausted was he that he simply sunk to the ground, hand gripped around his falchion blade so tight that it bled. The others flocked to him and helped him back to himself, but he would never be the same again.

They destroyed the magic items and looted the bodies. On closer inspection the wyrdstone Grunstein had been using was discovered to be that most foul substance, Warpstone, obviously being used by the necromancer to fuel his foul rites. Grunstein investigated the book from which these rites were read and found it was a speak with dead spell; the necromancer had been planning to raise the ghost of a resident of this crypt. Such a terrible book and such an evil substance would need to be destroyed, and not just in the local Sigmar temple – a journey to Heavenbalm would be necessary soon to destroy such abominations.

Notes on the necromancer’s body suggested he was looking for a member of the Family Azeem, who were buried here. This family ruled Separation City until the von Jungfreuds arrived 12 years earlier, and the necromancer’s notes suggested that the person he was attempting to bring back from beyond had been murdered by the von Jungfreuds. He had traveled here from Heavenbalm to find out something about the past in Separation City, and he was not alone; he was a member of a clique based in Heavenbalm, who met at a tavern there called the Seventh Banner.

Now the PCs began to wonder – was there something special about Separation City? Why was it that all these people had an interest in this town? Twelve years ago the von Jungfreuds had come here, and had been willing to do murder to take control of the town. How had they been able to arrange their possession of this town and why? How come this tomb was so forgotten and hidden? Then, was it a coincidence that a powerful disease cultist based in Store – the mysterious “F” – had sent a strong disease cult to overwhelm the town, coincidentally using von Jungfreud as the centre of the plot and killing her husband? And why was this necromancer here trying to turn up secrets from 12 years ago?

The PCs realized that there was a mystery about the town, and that it could be answered only through investigations in Separation City, Heavenbalm and Store. Since they had an evil book and warpstone to destroy, there next course of action was obvious – they would travel to Heavenbalm to the temple of Eight Banners, to destroy the book and the stone; and while there they would hunt down this necromantic clique, and find what it aimed to achieve. They would regret the day one of their number crossed paths with Azahi, Laren, Grunstein and Gregor …

A few mechanical notes: upon sight of the ritual all the PCs had to do corruption checks and several failed. Somehow Grunstein managed to use the warpstone four times and only incurred one point of corruption. By way of contrast, Azahi gained the frightened condition and once the ghoul attacked him he started incurring serious fatigue and stress, ultimately accruing four temporary insanities – one of which was permanent. This battle was a very close-fought thing indeed.

I GM’d session 7 of the Steamlands campaign on Saturday (report to go up shortly), with an old friend from London joining for the day. The session was essentially an extended encounter with two rally steps and three ferocious battles. This was an in-between session, setting up some story elements and run to enable my old London player to give WFRP3 a whirl without having to spend $200. In discussion with players afterwards a few things became apparent:

  • WFRP3’s stress/fatigue/insanity mechanism can be quite nasty
  • A long encounter (in this case a four hour session had probably three hours devoted to the encounter) can be exhausting for everyone
  • Some magic is really under-powered
  • Diversity in combat action cards doesn’t in practice produce anything

I’ll talk about some or all of these points in time, but for now I am interested in the last point. We had three types of combatant – Troll slayer, scout (archer) and witch hunter (both). In all cases, they deployed a variety of action cards, and pretty much all of those action cards end up with the same results – damage ranging from normal to +3, and occasionally a free manoeuvre.

Given the lack of diversity in outcomes, I’m wondering if combat-based action cards aren’t a complete waste of time. Not only do the different cards produce very similar outcomes, but the use of cards restricts my creativity to do interesting things with the dice pool. For example, if the card has a line for two boons and a comet, we all expect those lines will be used. But the two boons often produce results that the player doesn’t want, or that don’t matter in the context (especially e.g. a free manoeuvre when you don’t need to manoeuvre, or healing fatigue when you don’t have any). However, if we were just using a straight attack with dice pool, then I would set benefits according to the context – e.g. two boons means you get a fortune die on your next attack; three boons gives you an intimidate check to try and put a permanent misfortune die on their actions; a comet means the wizard’s spell is disrupted. Instead it’s just the cards. This would be fine if the cards granted diversity but they don’t.

So I’m wondering if I should move away from action cards altogether for anything except spells, and resort to just being creative with people’s attacks. I could introduce a very simple mechanic:

  • all fighters can select to use a fancy attack or a basic attack
  • Basic attacks get a free manoeuvre or remove one fatigue on two boons
  • Fancy attacks incur one misfortune die, cause fatigue on two banes, and get a context specific benefit on two boons
  • Comets and stars are at my discretion
  • All attacks get normal damage + number of successes if they are successful

I’m also thinking the talent tree idea I introduced in response to reading the Star Wars game might be a more interesting way of getting diverse outcomes in combat with less effort than action cards.

I might discuss this with my players in more detail.

What party happened under these wattles?

What party happened under these wattles?

At the end of the last session, our heroes had successfully destroyed a disease cult near Separation City, though at a high cost in disease and wounds, and without capturing its ultimate leader. They now knew, however, that this leader could be found somewhere in the distant town of Store, and had a better idea of his plans for Separation City.

In this session, we find our PCs at loose ends for the first time since they arrived in Separation City. Greeted as heroes by the residents of the town and having restored the healers to their rightful place, the PCs were able to relax and receive some much-needed healing, as well as take part in a great Steamlands tradition: the wattle-viewing party. All around Separation City the wattle trees had come into bloom, and the city had turned golden in the reflected light of their heavy blossoms. Parties were held under stands of these trees, and the PCs were invited to every party they passed on account of their heroic deeds. In between visits to the healers, the whole party was able to remain constantly drunk and fed.

Unfortunately, most members of the party were too sick to travel, and so after three days of convalescence it fell to only two of the group – the elven scout, Laren and the dwarven troll-slayer Azahi – to leave town on their next mission, while the other party members rested to recover from the ghoulpox they had been inflicted with in the previous adventure.

The next mission began easily enough: as part of their reward for freeing the town of its disease cult, the party had been offered the services of a single healer, to live permanently at their onsen. Laren and Azahi took on the responsibility of escorting the healer to the onsen, and also checking their onsen was still functioning well. They took with them the 10 monkey-men who they saved from pustulent death, for these monkey-men had now bound themselves to the party and would not leave them.

Laren and Azahi and their charges reached the onsen with no trouble after a short journey, and soon had the healer resting in the onsen. The monkey-men they dispatched to the steam valley to the rear of their spa, with the intention of establishing a new village there. The monkey-men would grow mangoes and keep watch over the narrow valley.

The next morning the pair learnt that the onsen’s remaining guards had seen evidence of goblin patrols in the hills nearby. They set out immediately to find these goblins and destroy them. Azahi’s grudge against greenskins is so furious that he refused to wait for the convalescing party members, but insisted that just the two of them go to war, taking with them three monkey-men as support.

They soon found goblin trails, and Laren was easily able to track them to their lair, a small cave system in the hills a few hours’ march from the onsen. Even though these goblins appeared to have been resident for at least a year without causing trouble, Azahi refused to leave them be, and so they attacked. The plan was simple: Azahi moved as stealthily as he could to the cave mouth and attacked the two goblins on guard there, with Laren providing covering fire. The battle opened with the immediate death of the first goblin, but the second raised a ruckus and refused to back down, and as Azahi engaged him a giant spider descended from the cliff face above the cave mouth and attacked him from behind. Unfortunately, Laren’s first shot missed spider and goblin and skewered Azahi perfectly in the back, and before she could find her aim she had already badly wounded her own ally.

Fangs the size of milk bottles...

Fangs the size of milk bottles…

The battle lasted a couple of rounds, and though Azahi was in no danger of losing while Laren supported him, from deeper in the cave network they could hear more goblins preparing for battle. Azahi had only just dispensed with the spider and the remaining goblin when a mob of four more goblins came charging into the cave from a narrow tunnel at its darkest recess. These met their immediate doom on his falchion, and though he could hear more sounds from below, none charged up the stairs. He called in Laren, and they braced themselves for more battle.

A tunnel led from the rear of the cave deeper into the complex, heading down in a spiral to a lower cave in which they could hear eight goblins preparing for battle. Thinking it wise to act first, Laren used her elven trick shot, firing an arrow that curved perfectly down the spiraling tunnel to meet its mark somewhere in the deeper darkness. They heard a scream, a goblin yelling “no, don’t do that…” followed by a gurgle, smashing glass and a sudden explosion of flames. After some more screams and the sound of barrels of water being splashed around, the goblins came charging up the tunnel. Only six emerged into the top cave, and one of them obviously badly burnt; Laren and Azahi slaughtered them at the tunnel mouth, though not before Azahi took some more damage. Though they were winning, Azahi was taking wounds and refusing to back down, his expression grimmer than Laren had ever seen and his resolve firm. They would die here, or conquer.

They descended the tunnel and emerged into a scene of chaos. The cave at the tunnel bottom was a guard room, largely empty but for some weapon racks and a table. Lying on one side of the room were the badly burnt corpses of two goblins, surrounded by smashed lanterns and soaked in water. It was clear what had happened here: Laren’s trick shot had mortally wounded one, who had staggered into another. The arrow protruding from the first had penetrated deep into the second, and in his agonized flailings he had knocked over the lanterns that stood on a rack next to him, accidentally torching both of them and spilling some flaming oil onto a third. The remaining goblins had upended all their barrels of drinking water to douse the flames, and then in their rage they had all charged unthinking up the tunnel to their doom. The cave stank abominably of burning oil and roasted goblin, a stench that Laren had never experienced and Azahi remembered only from the time his family, starving, had been forced to grill a plague-ridden fox one winter. Both of them, gagging, fled the cave and headed deeper into the complex.

At the bottom of the tunnel they found a supply cave, common in many goblin complexes: an underground stream ran through the middle of it, and next to the stream was a pile of mouldering giant mushrooms, giving off a dim phosphorescent light. Crates of old loot and a few goat carcasses littered the room, but there was nothing of interest. However, Azahi remembered an old tale amongst dwarves, that with the right preparation the gobins’ mushroom lights could be rendered explosive; and Laren, using her nature lore, was able to come up with a rough concoction of urine, salt and blackpowder that would do the job. They prepared a single bottle of exploding goblin-mushroom, and followed the tunnels out of the storeroom into the deeper darkness.

Here they found their target: the goblin chieftain with the last eight warriors of his tribe. Azahi waited some way up the tunnel, and Laren threw her exploding mushroom bottle from the shadows. This landed right amongst the chieftain and his crew, exploding with a ferocious light and stench. Laren fled up the tunnel to take a position behind Azahi; moments later the eight goblins came charging up the tunnel, their chieftain behind them. Four of these goblins were badly burnt, but the chieftain was taking no chances. He sent them ahead urging them on at sword point. He was a huge beast of a goblin, fully half again the size of a normal man, decorated in a bizarre mix of stolen armour, heavily scarred and almost black with years and grime. His beady eyes shone with rage in a grizzled face twisted in a rictus of hate; his left shoulder-guard was covered with the dried skin of a dwarven face badly removed from its hapless owner. Smoke drifted from various parts of his burnt clothes and hair, and he screamed in rage as he ascended the tunnel.

The eight goblins met Azahi with a thunderous crash, and in moments he had dispensed with four of them in a frenzy of short, savage chops of his falchion. Laren skewered several of them, but the chieftain charged into the gap Azahi had made, beating his own allies aside as he entered the fray. Unfortunately Azahi’s wounds were too great for him; before he could deliver the killing blow the chieftain felled him with a massive chop across the back of the head, leaving only Laren to finish the battle. As he stood baying his victory over the slumped troll-slayer, she shot him in the face. Even this didn’t kill him, but it did draw him back to his rage, so that instead of severing the head of his defeated foe he charged for the elf. She ran daintily up the tunnel, leading him back to the monkey-men where they stood guard; they surged past her to join combat, and she turned and fired back into the fray.

The chieftain was brave and brutal, but he was already badly wounded and no match for three enraged monkey-men. One he slew with a cruel and vicious slash to the shoulder, but then the other two were onto him, ripping and tearing and hooting and smashing, and they did not stop until nothing remained of him but a bloody smear. Laren stepped over the remains and ran to Azahi’s aid, relieved to find him still alive though bloodied. His injured state saved her from witnessing the grimmest part of a troll-slayer’s duty: had he been well at the end of battle he would have proceeded into the breeding caves at the rear of the complex and slaughtered all the women and children too, but he could only sit slumped in exhaustion against the wall and watch in helpless anger as those innocents fled up the tunnel to take their chances in the wilderness.

Laren and Azahi had prevailed, but at great cost: Azahi nearly dead and one monkey-man lost. They gathered up the goblins’ pitiful treasure and left the cave to return to the onsen, where their newly-installed healer would be able to repair Azahi. Laren was uninjured but for this, and for her first hasty shot into battle, there was bad blood between them, the old enmity of elves and dwarves briefly rekindled. Nonetheless, they had proven themselves a good team.

Back at the onsen they were greeted by a messenger from Separation City, who told them bad news: rumour was abroad of a stranger in the graveyards, and the lady von Jungfreud suspected a survivor of the disease cult still lurked about town. She wanted Azahi and Laren to return to town to investigate and capture this last survivor.

Truly there is no rest for the righteous; nor, indeed, for our heroes…

Photo credit: the image is by Andrew Babington.

The people of the Steamlands view faith in a practical light, preferring mostly to avoid the attention of the greater powers in the hope of a peaceful life. That there are Gods and magic imbuing the entire land is a fact unquestioned; the utility of loyal service to them is noted; but the ultimate benefits of fealty are weak, and questionable. This is because the gods of the Steamlands divide into two bitterly opposed factions: the uncaring, capricious and probably not-even-sentient gods of the main churches, whose beneficence is limited to their closest servants; and the malicious gods of Chaos, who offer greater but uncertain rewards to those sick enough to join with them, in exchange for a life of secrecy and pain.

The gods of the main churches are universally accepted as real, but to show faith gains nothing. Even to their closest followers they offer no eternal salvation or redemption. Their teachings offer no hope for a better future, no life beyond death, no reward for goodness and no benefits to casual faith. Those who attend church regularly to offer their prayers to these gods are given no promise that the gods will attend to their needs. The ordinary citizens of the Steamlands are simply told that ruin follows from a neglect of fealty, and expected to believe in all the main gods, and accord them respect, for no better reason than the fear of floods and earthquakes that are visited upon unbelievers. Only those who dedicate their lives to service of a single church gain any benefit from their faith: for these select few, temporal power can be gained through the power to cast benedictions and to have prayers answered. For the rest, faith and worship are reflexive acts, practised to avoid the wrath of unfeeling and unsentimental elder powers rather than out of love for or hope of a greater good on this world or any other. All followers of the main gods of the churches will live out their short, nasty lives in pain and suffering, eased only by the occasional ministrations of the Shallyans, and when they have served out their allotted mortal term will be coiled up into the earth, to return to the worms and the darkness. The best hope for ordinary mortals in the Steamlands is to live their lives unnoticed by church, god or secular powers, to avoid major mishaps (or to be tended by the Shallyans when they occur) and to die with dignity, hopefully not in too much pain, and hopefully surrounded by loved ones. Thus do the gods promise that all humans are equal.

The Chaos gods whisper in the ears of some arrogant or cruel folk that they can rise above this tawdry cycle, and offer commensurate benefits. There is no ever-lasting life in Chaos, but the Chaos gods do promise a longer life, possibly much longer than any human can hope for naturally, great temporal power to aid their followers in pursuing whatever corrupt material goals they desire, and freedom from disease and pain not through the humble ministrations of healers, but through the domination and ultimate subjugation of the human condition: in short, long life and the ability to ignore or control disease, pain and terror. Those who serve the gods of Chaos well do not go to some dark and horrific hell, as is often threatened by the preachers of Sigmar: they die peacefully and return to the earth as do all mortals, all their cruel deeds and corruption unpunished forever. However, very few of the followers of the Chaos gods live long enough to gain this reward, because the Chaos churches function on hatred, cruelty and treachery. Those who first enter the church are pawns for their more powerful brethren, used horribly and treated cruelly so that only the strongest and bravest survive. Those who fail to rise to the early challenges of entry into these creeds of darkness die soon, and horribly, or are cast out to suffer the flames of the established churches. Those few who succeed in rising above the level of initiate are then able to inflict the same cruelty they experienced on others, and to use their followers as they see fit. But for those who reach these higher echelons of the Chaos church, a more dangerous fate awaits. For though the Chaos gods reward their longest-lived and most faithful followers with peace after a long life, they punish those who fail them terribly. Leaders of chaos cults or disease sects who fail to achieve the tasks they are given, who are revealed and captured by the churches, or who betray their cult, are given the worst punishment of all: their souls are thrown into hell, and tortured until the Chaos gods tire of them. Some scholars contend that it is only through this punishment that the Chaos gods are able to generate the supernatural power they need to reward their followers, since they have been cut off from whatever godhead underlies the powers of the gods of the main churches. Others contend that so long as there is pain, suffering and treachery in the world of ordinary mortals, the Chaos gods will always have supernatural power to bestow on those they seduce away from the path of righteousness. Whatever the truth of it, the reality of the Chaos cults is always the same: the new entrants are abused and used as their elders see fit, but those same elders must always succeed, lest they be fed into the great and terrible cauldron of punishment that the gods of Chaos reserve for their own kind. Should they avoid an early death and conduct themselves well in the service of their gods, however, servants of Chaos can hope to live long lives blessed with temporal power and fanatical followers who will do their every bidding.

This is the choice that faces ordinary mortals in the Steamlands: thankless piety to uncaring, capricious gods who offer them no sanctuary from the bitterness of ordinary life; or a brutal struggle to gain the favour of dark gods through fell deeds, in the small hope of extending their mortality beyond that of their kin, and slaking their lusts on the weak and the innocent. The preachers of the main churches contend that humanity is weak and morally frail, and this is why the majority of ordinary people show a cynical view of the churches and offer only the weakest semblance of piety. But the truth is that neither the gods of the main churches or the Gods of chaos offer any reason for mortals to respect them, and none to love them. For the majority of the residents of the Steamlands the presence of immortal powers is a curse, the churches a bane, their promises empty and their threats vexing. It is in this spirit that the people greet their preachers – is it any wonder, then, that the Chaos cults always seem to spring up anew, no matter how hard good folk try to destroy them?

Falconfox often begs tobacco off of strangers...

Falconfox often begs tobacco off of strangers…

When we left our heroes, they had just entered combat with the Cavalcade of Ruin. They were joined almost immediately  by a dwarf of dubious intent, Colonel Cornelius Lodestone XIX of the Glass Hills (15th Assistant to the Grand Artificer) (2nd Class Airship Pilot in His Majesty’s Royal Air Corps, Group 5, Wyvern Squadron, Azure Wing) (Field Agent 85A , Hazardous Delvings Department, Section 6)… Colonel Falconfox to his friends … This short and generally not very useful man appeared at the window of the Healer’s Hospice almost as soon as battle was joined, firing his loud but largely useless black powder pistols into the fray. Fortunately the party had another, much more effective dwarf to aid them, the indomitable Azahi the Trollslayer, and though the battle was tough they ultimately prevailed.

The battle was a raucous affair. Azahi took the Plaguebearer – the great, fat, rotting ogrish figure – front and centre, and while he slugged it out with this ham-fisted and abhorrent creature the elven Scout, Laren, and the wizard attempted to deal with the Chaos sorcerer and his marauders. This didn’t work out so well for the party: Laren found herself inflicted with three diseases, and the wizard suffered two diseases before he was knocked unconscious under a bevy of critical injuries. Laren the elf managed to distract the Chaos sorcerer’s Nurglings from battle through judicious application of a well-cooked kidney pie, freeing her up to concentrate on the sorcerer himself. The initiate attempted to aid Azahi to little avail, but finally Azahi crushed the Plaguebearer and they managed to overcome the sorcerer. The surviving Chaos marauder fled, but was cut down by the newcomer Dwarf; and after a few minutes of chaos and slimy, bloody confusion the party managed to destroy the Nurglings. The poxy cavalcade threatening Separation City had been vanquished!

Though they were largely too sick to stay upright for long, the party searched the bodies of their foes. They discovered nothing of value, but they did discover a large object wrapped in cloth. Upon unwrapping it, they found that the cavalcade had brought with them to the healer’s hospice the body of a mutant. Though they couldn’t be sure, their suspicion was that the cavalcade of Ruin intended to install the mutant in the empty hospice, so as to imply that the Healers had been attempting to cure a mutant. Throughout the Steamlands, mutants are killed on sight, being servants of Chaos; but there are rumours – never confirmed – that some healers are so zealous in their pursuit of Shallya’s mercy that they will even try to heal mutants. By placing the corpse in the Healer’s hospice, the cavalcade of Nurgle would have been able to discredit Separation City’s healers and give strength to an old rumour. This would have guaranteed that the town’s healers were burnt at the stake, and freed up the town for the forces of Nurgle to infest. Fortunately, our heroes had defeated this nefarious plot.

They searched the cavalcade’s caravan and captured their remaining servants, but got nothing useful except more diseases. Finally, exhausted and afflicted, the party returned to their tavern and collapsed in a pox-ridden heap, to await the accolades they deserved – and some healing.

The healers returned after two days, and the party received all the healing they needed; but with the healers came Madam von Jungfreud, who after some perfunctory apologies for her mistakes demanded that the PCs should head off into the wilderness to find the leader of the cult of Nurgle, and destroy it. Our heroes, being in possession of certain letters to the doctor, were fairly sure that the leader of the cult was not located anywhere near Separation City. However, they realized that the plague afflicting the lands around Separation City must have some cause, so they set off the following day to find – and destroy – whatever outpost of Nurgle had afflicted the lands west of Separation City.

On the evening of the first day of walking, the party came to Monkey Mountain. This mountain holds a community of creatures somewhat like primitive humans, who cannot speak any language humans know but are peacable enough to be able to communicate and trade with local farmers. When our heroes reached it they soon found themselves accosted by an enraged Monkey Man, who was clearly also very, very sick. The Initiate calmed the Monkey Man by gestured signals indicating he could help, and the Monkey Man led them to his community on Monkey Mountain.

Sadly, the Monkey Man’s tribe were dead – all but about 10 of them. They had died of some kind of plague. Familiar by now with the machinations of the cult of Nurgle, the party soon found a bag of pus secreted at the source of the Monkey Mountain’s streams, and identified here the cause of the clan’s disease. Noting also a pile of goods obtained from recent trade with the nearby farmers, they guessed that the Monkey Men had been used as the locus of disease throughout the area. Though subsequently the party found other streams with the same contamination, it was obvious that the Monkey Men had been infected en masse as a source of disease for the farmers in the area. The Initiate identified that the disease disseminated here was ghoulpox, and since the party had cures for the ghoulpox, obtained from the doctor in Separation City, they were soon able to cure the few surviving Monkey Men. This cure, unfortunately, renders its victims suggestible; so when they left the Mountain the party had secured themselves a force of 11 loyal Monkey Man followers …

They passed on through the ravaged farmlands west of Separation City. For two days, they found nothing but occasional sources of infection, but in the evening of the second day they stumbled upon something new …

By now they had passed beyond the farmland around Separation City and were passing though typical highland forest: silent stands of eucalyptus forest, eerily silent but for the occasional lone cry of unnamed birds. Near evening, they heard a new and strange sound over the silence of the forest, like a huge swarm of insects; and over the subtle lemonbalm scent of eucalypts came the strong stench of ordure, as if they were nearing a military encampment. Thinking they might have stumbled on the military mission that left Separation City a few weeks earlier, they headed to the source of the smell …

… and found a horrific site. They entered a small clearing, at the centre of which was an onsen of medium warmth. Floating in the middle of the onsen was a strange construction, consisting of two canoes, one upturned over the other and the pair locked together. Trapped within them was the body of a man, and about him thronged a huge horde of stinging, biting and parasitic insects. They had stumbled on a scaphism – someone was being tortured by means of the boats. Drawing the boats into the edge of the onsen, the PCs were assailed by a terrible smell. The wizard used his spell The Howler Wind to disperse the insects, revealing beneath a sight to horrify even a Dwarven graverobber such as Colonel Falconfox: beneath the cowl of insects was Separation City’s priest of Sigmar, reduced to a moaning and suppurating mess, all his skin punctured and ruined by insects. Worms swam in his eyes, and ran down the streaks of vomit that smeared his cheeks; the stench that came off him was horrific to mortal men, and his arms pulsated with larvae and grubs soon to hatch. He had been tortured most foully, and his last delerious days were upon him.

The priest opened his cracked lips to reveal a swollen, insect-infested tongue. He begged the party not to kill him, and told them that every morning at dawn two cultists came to his pool, and these two cultists had a key to the tower. The PCs saw their chance: they set the priest adrift on the water again, and laid a trap for the cultists.

The following morning two cultists came to the water, and were duly caught. Azahi, showing no patience with them, dragged one down to the water. He drew in the boat, smothered the priest to death against his (feeble, human) will, and tore him from the boats. Then he picked up the cultist and told him, “you go in the boats, or you die quickly.”

These cultists were no fools – they knew that when caught, a cultist of Nurgle can choose only the manner, not the fact of their demise. This one quickly sprang to his own defense, and offered to tell the PCs all they needed to know.

The other one went in the boats.

The PCs then headed up the hill in the direction the cultists had come, soon finding themselves facing a small tower. The graverobber approached under stealth but was seen and attacked by a wizard in the tower. The elf and the wizard approached the tower disguised as cultists, and were hailed as friends with the warning “rush to the door, someone waits to ambush you.” This they did, but the wizard’s ice spell failed and their plans to invade the lower room quickly were ruined. Nonetheless, they soon bested the guards at the lower level of the tower. They then spent several minutes faffing around casting various spells while they tried to discern magically whether there was a trapdoor in through the roof; finally, learning there was, the elf and the initiate began climbing the outside of the tower. Once they were well on their way, the remaining residents of the higher regions of the tower charged down to attack the remnants of the party: Azahi the trollslayer, Captain Falconfox and the wizard found themselves fighting three plague-zombies, a shaman and a powerful wizard. This latter was the Plague Captain: a chap in a suit bearing a pipe, who surrounded himself in evil magics and attempted to cripple his enemies with disease and corruption.

After a brief and brutal battle our heroes won the day, and finally the disease cult were eliminated. Searching the tower, they found a map of a part of the catacombs beneath the town of Store, and a key – evidence, perhaps, that they could use to pursue the ultimate leader of this cult of horrors. It was clear that they had not captured the final leader of this branch of Nurgle’s cult, but they had saved Separation City from a host of terrors, and found clues as to the ultimate leadership of this cult.

Satisfied, they returned to Separation City. Would they pursue a crusade against the cult of Nurgle, or return to their onsen to enjoy a quiet life? Only time will tell …

Elves fishing in the lakes of the high mountains

Elves fishing in the lakes of the high mountains

The north of the Steamlands is covered by a sweeping arc of human influence, reaching from the Spear Capes on the west coast to the Palace Cape on the east, where the human presence begins to wane under the influence of the Machine Minds. South of this arc of influence and west of the Palace Cape is a huge swathe of untamed land, referred to generally as the World Forest. This forest sprawls over mountains and plains, hills and rivers, and constitutes fully half of the landmass of the Steamlands. In the north and west it is dry eucalypt forest, merging with pine on the higher slopes; to the far south it turns to temperate rainforest, also primarily eucalypt, and here the Beastmen roam in what is commonly called the Beastlands. In the deep centre of this huge forest complex are the kingdoms of the elves, an ancient and reclusive race with many secrets, their own pagan gods, and a strange and wild magic that is unfamiliar to the humans of the north. Most believe that the elves and beastmen lived in the Steamlands long before the coming of humans, but this history is not clear, because there are no early records of contact between humans and elves, and it may be that the elves arrived later than humans. Although their sailing technology is primitive, it is noteworthy that the elves of the western coast – perhaps the least understood of all the elves – are remarkably adept at sailing, and have a stock of legends of long journeys that, though little studied by humans, suggest knowledge of events and places that are unknown in the Steamlands but can be dated back thousands of years.

If it is true that the elves came from elsewhere, no one knows where that elsewhere might have been, why they came to the Steamlands, or the relationship between their strange nature gods and the civilized gods of humans. Though congress between the races has improved in recent years, little exchange of cultural knowledge occurs, and it appears that the elves like to keep their secrets fast hidden. Thus, to the majority of humans the elves remain a race of barbaric wild folk, little better than Beastmen. Though explorers and adventurers returning from the World Forest report magnificent and strange cities, and marvels of nature lore and magic, most folk dismiss these tales as fanciful rubbish, and imagine elves as loose bands of tribal savages.

The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Elves are divided loosely into three groups: high elves, who live in the mountains; wood elves, the majority, who populate the deep forests; and low elves, who live on the coast and are expert sailors. The three groups share a language, though they have many dialects, and trade and sometimes make war with each other. The high elves seem to live mostly in small agricultural communities, farming the valleys of the high mountains and fishing on the lakes. The wood elves live in wandering bands that travel around loosely defined territories, living off the land. Low elves have small coastal communities, but spend much of their time living on the open sea, often returning to land only after months at sea. However, both the low elves and the wood elves also maintain metropolises: the cities of the low elves form at sea for brief, defined periods, as the boats of many small communities come together for festivals of marriage, diplomacy and trade[1]. The wood elves maintain permanent cities in the deepest, oldest parts of the forest, carved out of the wilderness and growing as part of it. These cities are often nearly empty, and populated on a seasonal basis as the wandering bands return from their travels. Different bands seem to maintain different, regular patterns of migration and return, but the rules governing these nomadic cycles are unclear to outsiders – whether they are religious, seasonal, or cultural is impossible to say. Because elves live longer than humans, and do not construct their lives around standard seasonal patterns, they seem to maintain longer cycles in their lives – so every 10 or 30 years the cycles of a large number of bands will synchronize, and the cities will become festivals of glorious noise and colour.

At all times elven cities will be occupied by travelers, diplomats, the elderly and the very young, as well as members of other communities at rest or play. They are also home to non-elven forest residents: centaurs, fauns, and a range of fey folk can be found in most elven cities. They also maintain strange colleges of magic and religion, shrines, and their unique agricultural and biological institutes, which fashion new and weird crops and make mysterious creations out of the stuff of life. In the World Forest, what is natural and what is created can be impossible for outsiders to distinguish, and it is not known whether the forest shaped the elves, or the elves the forest.

Elves can be remarkably diverse in appearance, with skin ranging from deep black through the palest white tinted with pale blue, green or copper hues. Their hair is usually black or blond. Universally they are small and slight of build, with delicate bone structures and exaggerated facial features – large, non-human eyes, oversized but delicate ears, and remarkable cheekbones. Their eyes usually show very little white, and can appear strangely non-sentient with their unblinking gaze. Their voices are remarkably powerful, with a wide vocal range and strange ability to project sound beyond the limits of their frame. They also have remarkable hearing, but it is easily confused by the mess of sounds in a human city – they can only employ their senses well when they are in the wilderness. Elves live perhaps three or four times the length of time of humans, and it is not clear if they are mammals. Males and females are indistinguishable, and their is no extant record of childbirth. Some suggest they are a mature (or immature) form of fey life – just an ephemeral stage in the fairy cycle – while others have suggested that they can reproduce asexually or sexually. More extreme theories also exist – that the elves produce children collectively through their will, which is why they have to gather in cities periodically; or that they are a static race incapable of producing new members of their kind. There is no record of the existence of a half elf, and dark rumours amongst those close to the elves that miscegenation of this kind is seen as abominable. The elves are also deeply resistant to the human religions, maintaining their own strange pagan worship against all reasonable evidence that it is worthless under the gaze of Sigmar.

The elves of the Steamlands are a strange, magical race that cannot ever be fully understood or accepted by humans. Nonetheless, their adventurers and traders travel amongst the humans of the Steamlands, cause little harm and, though not widely trusted, are usually accepted with good grace. Though many humans think a time will come when there is a reckoning between the races, and many humans see elves as inferior and barbaric, they are tolerated or accepted in most places. Whether the suspicions of their darker purpose will be proven true is a matter that only time will tell; and the truth of their past and their strange, alien culture is something that can only be discovered by the hardiest and most persistent of adventurers …

fn1: somewhat like the annual democratic meeting of the old Icelanders.

Everyone loves to suck the mango seed...

Everyone loves to suck the mango seed…

Mangoes are a fruit from heaven, much loved by all residents of the Steamlands, but the environment is inimical to their growth. Aside from the lush jungle of the far south, the climate of the Steamlands is harsh: cold, snowy winters and harsh, dry late summer and autumn make it difficult for a fruit as fragrant and delicate as the mango to survive. Mangoes in the Steamlands thus only survive around hot springs, where they are protected from the chill of winter and safe from the harshest excesses of summer. But because all hot springs retain a certain magical property of earth magic, mangoes have developed a kind of affinity for magic, and if the seed of a rotten mango is appropriately treated in a hot spring, it can become a cheap and durable vessel for simple magic. In particular, mango seeds that have been boiled in a hot spring can be enchanted with base magics and a trigger word, such that when thrown and activated they cast a low-grade spell in a small area.

To be enchanted, a rotten  mango must be reduced to just its seed through treatment in a hot spring. Hot spring owners don’t allow rotten fruit in their hot springs, so usually this treatment needs to be done in a wild hot spring or at a friendly location. Unfortunately, wild springs have become increasingly rare as hot spring farming has become more common, and although a few exist around Separation City they are near the graveyards, and rumoured to be haunted. This means that preparation of mango seeds can be dangerous and time consuming. However, once prepared, they can be enchanted.

Preparation is not simple, however, and requires someone with knowledge of plants and hot springs. Typically the task can be completed by a wood elf, farmer, NPC specialist, or way watcher. Preparation takes about an hour, and requires a 2D nature lore check. Failure renders the seeds unusable, but success can affect the enchantment process, as described below.

  • 1 success: the seeds can be enchanted
  • 3 successes: +1 expertise die on the enchantment check
  • 2 boons: reduce enchantment cost by 10 sps per seed
  • 2 banes: +1 misfortune die on the enchantment check
  • Chaos star: one seed is cursed so that it only produces bane and chaos effects

The enchantment process itself costs 30 sps per seed. To enchant the seeds, the wizard gathers the ingredients and conducts a ritual that lasts one night. Mango seeds only hold magic from rank 1 spells, and no more than than three mango seeds can be enchanted at any one time. Only spells that produce a lingering effect can be cast on the seeds, and if the enchantment is successful these seeds will become a kind of grenade that, when thrown, afflicts a small number of enemies in an engagement with the lingering effect. Only magic (not blessings) can be used on the mango seeds, and positive enchantments can also be cast (affecting allies rather than enemies). The enchantment check is a 3D spellcraft check, with effects described below.

  • 1 success: 1 seed enchanted
  • 3 success: 3 seeds enchanted
  • 2 boons: seeds gain the two boons effect
  • 2 banes: seeds gain the chaos star effect
  • Sigma: seeds gain the sigmar +1 wound effect

Throwing the seeds is easy: they simply need to land in an engagement, so the task is a 1D ballistic skill check with no effect of enemy defense. Once the seed lands in the engagement, the targeted enemy or enemies need to resist the effects of the spell embedded in the mango. Because the mango seed requires activation with a special word (chosen by the enchanter) only those who know the command word may use them, and there is a risk of failure due to a poorly timed command word (hence the skill check to deliver the seed). Effects of seeds do not stack, so only one seed can be used in an engagement at any one time. This is reflected on the action card through the recharge value of the card.

An example card is shown at the top of this post. This card is assumed to have been enchanted with the Jade Order entangling spell. Other spells will produce different lingering effects. The condition invoked by the seed lasts as long as there are recharge tokens on the card.

It is rumoured that there are ways to treat mango seeds to make them reusable, but this magic is either lost or known only to the elves. It is also rumoured that the flesh of mangoes makes a useful ingredient for potions, but this may also be a secret known only to the elves…