[Update: Blogger tried to eat this post, so I had to republish it. This was originally posted yesterday, before the Desolation of Smaug review.]
Myth, The Shield Age: A dramatic synopsis of the tabletop RPG campaign I'm currently leading my friends through. It's a variation on GURPS, built up from and inspired by the excellent computer game Myth. In it, the player characters begin as a selection of relatively ordinary folk in an unremarkable town. Their adventures grow, the dangers swarm, and the PCs? They pretty much just have to deal with it without serious power progression. It's gritty, it's deadly, it's fantasy with a political and social edge and an emotional timbre: it's Myth: The Shield Age.
Last time I introduced the plot of my GURPS Myth campaign. Today's entry is going to continue Alrid Hock's account of the events at the beginning of the adventure. One of the really fun things about (some) tabletop RPGs that you can't get from a video game is dramatically emergent gameplay. This is purely a function of the interaction of the game and the improvisation of the GM, and in this write-up the improvisation allowed the players to take the reins of the quest and do it on their own terms in a way that genuinely surprised me.
Now as a GM you might be tempted to view this in an adversarial way, like the players are out to destroy your plans. Don't. View this as an opportunity to expand the story to encompass your players' goals. Then twist and corrupt those plans with the harsh reality of consequence and adaptive antagonists. Or use it as a way to create an endearing, tragic NPC that the players not only welcome into their party, but also protect diligently.
Note: This segment begins with a pretty awful implication as the party finds Giselbert about to be set upon by the leader of her captors. This part is very important and also a pretty delicate topic. The threat of sexual assault here was something I carefully weighed against my group's love for Rob Roy, Braveheart, Game of Thrones, etc. where such deplorable acts are inciting plot events. The players' actions in quickly finding Giselbert that night, however, allowed them to prevent the worst of it.
Even so, Danlyra's player's first reaction was "Oh, maybe I don't have what it takes to play a woman in this setting afterall..."
In addition to being a non-traditional and emotional start to a fantasy RPG campaign, this session set up a tenuous balance where the characters constantly abuse their despicable prisoner even as they have to take him in for justice. That's a huge running theme throughout the first leg of this campaign.
A man was in the cave partition with Giselbert. Tall, hale, and dark of skin, this man looked like a Gowern by Ten Green Gem Vine's estimation. He sneered at the intruding blacksmith and Heron Guard, even with his armor and sword set aside. Giselbert had clear been abused.
The brigand went for his sword, a curved eastern blade, and drew it on the two men in a flash. But the young Heron's blooded fangs struck out, one carving into the man's forearm whilst the other divested him of his weapon. Keagan's hammer fist struck out and bandied the villain about the head. The fight done and out of him, the man surrendered to the tips of Ten Green Gem Vine's swords.
With boot and gauntlet, they got a name from him--Guy, if his blood-bubbling words could be believed. The party might have questioned him further, but four bandits lay bleeding and pleading in the front of the cave. Out of mercy and prudence to bring captives to village justice, Ten Green Gem Vine plied their injuries with his Heron ken, and saved three men. While the Heron tended his enemies, Guy began to heckle the distraught Giselbert. Keagan quick had enough, and put Guy's face to the cave wall and boot to earn them all a swift silence.
Donovan's daughter recovered her senses shortly after Guy fell to Keagan's blows, and even helped staunch the gored spear-wound in Crow's side. For all the beating the girl had surely taken, she seemed intact. I have Ten Green Gem Vine's testimony to that fact. He offered to swear as much to Regan, but I declined it. The vow of a Heron Guard is a terrible thing.
There they were, four now made five with Giselbert, and four prisoners under hand. Guy's wounds would leave him in darkness for hours, and one of the bandits that had lost an arm had passed out as well. Crow's wound was well-tended, but the walk back to the village could tear open his wound and leave him dead in his own blood. And too many hours had passed into the dark autumn night, cloaking rock and pit in shadow. So they stayed the night in that den and broke for Misty Downs in the morning.
With the morning's fog the party developed new questions. Guy spat venom and invective at them, and it soon became apparent that Keagan would beat the man to death before he gave useful answers, so Vera gagged him. The bandit who lost his arm, one called Muck or Mook by Guy, answered every question put to him. Apparently, Guy was a deserter from The Legion who had become an infamous bandit in the Realm over the past year. The Gowern had hired Muck and the other bandits with a purse of shillings for a very specific job, plus whatever they could take. At the time none of the bandits knew what a fiend Guy was, but they soon learned. That was all they got from Muck before his arm's feverdreams got the better of him.
Before arriving at Misty Downs, the party oriented themselves to the Craw farm to most swiftly deliver her to her father and brother. The girl ran to her family in tears, while Donovan eyed the group's prisoners. Innocent Giselbert, though, dominated her father's attentions and insisted they take care of Crow, who'd been wounded fighting her captors. Donovan agreed and sent his son Laanor to help with escorting the prisoners to the village.
It was near midday when the party ambled into town, and the cry amongst our village was great. Laanor immediately began telling an exaggerated tale of the bravery of his sister's rescuers, and as I assembled the village council the matter was made fodder for the gossips. Nara Pugh, however, insisted on calling upon the divines before passing her judgment. Over the next day, our village recovered and celebrated, while the four prisoners awaited their fate in the cellar of the Flooded Downs tavern. When Nara called the council the next day, she related a vision of stars converging around The Great Comet and of a blood moon. We agreed it was a sign that these prisoners were part of some greater plot, and so they needed to be brought into higher scrutiny.
But first, they needed to be saved. Ten Green Gem Vine's knowledge of medicine may have patched wounds and staunched bleeding, but Muck and another of the bandits were bleeding out, and Guy had been pressed with questions to the point of death. Afraid their portent would pass away with them, we ordered a company of our village's men to escort them to Fort Ywrmasr on the frontier of The Barrier, a day north.
Before the prisoners were brought up from the cellar, Ten Green Gem Vine addressed the village in the square. In my years in The Legion, I have fought and served alongside many Heron Guard. They are all valorous and inspiring. Ten Green Gem Vine rallied our village like a commander marshaling his standard. Of our village's seventy houses, thirteen men stepped forward to see the task done. Amongst them were Vera the huntress, Crow the vagabond, Keagan the blacksmith, and Danlyra the Gowerna. At Danlyra's volunteering, my hot-blooded grandson, Baith, pledged his mettle. And at the end Laanor Craw, brother to the girl Giselbert, stepped out from his father's side and bound himself to the task as well. But most surprising of all was when Tiernan Seithkarl, Magistrate of Misty Downs, pledged to lead the expedition.
The Magistrate is a good man, but his ways are quite unlike ours. He rips the clouds with his nose, wearing fine clothes in the spring fields and glutting over every meal. To see him pledge to lead the expedition was a surprise to all the council. But his authority over our village would extend to any requests made of the garrison at Fort Ywrmasr. He packed up several books into a fine leather traveling bag and threw an extra week's worth of provisions onto the blacksmith's donkey as they headed out.
Traveling to Fort Ywrmasr takes about a day for a man with light burdens. For the Magistrate's assembly, bringing four wounded captives, it would take longer. The blacksmith's donkey pulled a simple two-wheeled cart along for Muck and carried much of the group's provisions. The Gowerna Danlyra profanely rode her horse for the duration, acting the maggot in our country. In all, it took two days of slow progress to reach the fort, and it was not uneventful.
In the middle of the night, with but one of the farmers on watch, the party awoke to the sound of nuzzling followed by shrieks coming from the cart. A wolf had wandered silently into the camp and was worrying open Muck's bloody legs. The crippled bandit lay sobbing and panicking as the party threw themselves upon the beast. Keagan Na Anyon ran the beast through, spitting it upon the thrust of his broadsword, and Ten Green Gem Vine tended to Muck as his blood muddied the soil anew. He needed the attention of Journeymen now more than ever, and of the band of captives he deserved it most. In the morning, Keagan had Seth Drafend skin the wolf and prepare the hide in exchange for letting the huntsman keep the meat.
Misty Downs' expedition reached Fort Ywrmasr in the cooling light of the next afternoon. Crossing a military foot bridge, the group took great care leading Keagan's burro across. Legion engineers make carefully-designed foot bridges surrounding their frontier forts. They are designed to permit only a few men wearing heavy armor at a time, enabling the bridge to crumble under the weight of massed hordes or easing sappers' deconstruction of such edifices in battle. And while the ass pulled the near-dead prisoner across the small bridge amicably, Danlyra's fine-bred horse balked at the creaking timbers of the flexing construction. I am told she had to coax the beast like a mangy dog to cross, much to my villagers' amusement.
They arrived at the fort late on the ninth of October. Ten Green Gem Vine quickly conducted Magistrate Seithkarl to treat with the fort's commander, an older Heron Guard named Seven Eagle Falling Sun. Quickly making the matter plain to him, the fort commander dispatched the fort's Journeymen to tend to the prisoners.
Magistrate Seithkarl didn't come forward with his account of the Journeymen's art and none of the others bore witness to it, but in my time in The Legion I have seen senior Heron Guard treat similar wounds. They intone a deep throaty song, lost words in deep sonorous notes that shake your core. Then they break roots of the mandrake over the men, from which blue smoke pours and falls onto the men's wounds. The cut and festering flesh sizzles and burns, filling the nostrils with the acrid stink of burning men--an odor that parches my blood to this day. The patient feels everything as the magic peels back skin and dissolves torn sinew, devouring the flesh until the original wound is replaced completely with a new one. It is only then that the curative magic knits the newly exposed muscles and tendons, drawing the meat to grow and fill the gouges and gore of battle. The blessed arts taught to the Guard by Regan himself can even reattach limbs under the right circumstance. But the healing magic is never complete--only time can sponge away the last injury. The wound is always left as a raw, tender sore that is inured to infection but susceptible to re-opening. The scar that remains is clean and distinct.
With the prisoners tended to, the Magistrate worked with Seven Eagle Falling Sun to determine the fate of the prisoners. With three companies under the Oghre Standard beneath his command, the fort commander could not spare men for our village's quest, but he did offer to judge the three bandits and allow the Magistrate's party to keep custody over Guy to bring him before the Emperor. Despite Muck's willingness to help the group, Tiernan had no more use for the crippled brigand. Ten Green Gem Vine supported the decision, but Keagan, Vera, and Danlyra all pointed out that the fort commander would surely summarily execute the brigands within a week. Tiernan reminded them that he who pays the piper calls the tune, and thereby sealed the bandits' fate. They would be left at Fort Ywrmasr.
On the following day, the party set out to return to Misty Downs with a restored Guy in their thrall, though with his health largely restored they decided to gag the brigand. They made good time that day, but still they had to make camp before reaching home. That night was a restless one of ill-omens and poor sleep. Ten Green Gem Vine stood the second watch along with young Laanor Craw, though it seemed more than the suddenly docile prisoner merited.
Ten Green Gem Vine rousted the rest of the party with a terrible start. And they quickly discovered that not only had Guy somehow slipped his bonds but he had also spirited away with Laanor Craw. As the final hours of October tenth waned, the party assembled in darkness and set out to hunt down the villain once more.
|Gowern: a man of Gower, a hilly kingdom to the east, part of the Empire. Fem. is Gowerna.
Gower is superficially similar to a medieval Middle East: defined by steppes and scrub-land, with dark creatures frequently wandering out of the far east and attacking their settlements.
Keagan will be freely beating Guy quite a bit in this campaign.
Regan: the Heron god, patron of the Heron Guard. Protector of wisdom and longevity.
"The vow of a Heron Guard is a terrible thing." -That's called foreshadowing, kiddos.
This first post-battle sequence was my chance to remind the players of how deadly combat was, and to also give them a chance to see how difficult first aid would be in a combat situation.
I also wanted to establish here that the players could expect to get sympathetic portrayals of characters they'd be tempted to label "bad guys". Muck proves to be helpful, but things don't pan out for him.
These first few sessions of the campaign were extremely emergent in terms of the players helping to guide the plot to delve into certain themes. Characters that had originally been throw-away NPCs to illustrate the dynamics of the game and setting, both Laanor Craw and Baith Hock become important figures in the campaign. My players like Laanor quite a lot, but I'm a sucker for the idiot romantic in Baith.
More emergent gameplay: Ten's player made a great speech calling the men of the village to action, then made a great roll on top of that. Bam, all of a sudden they have a party of commoners helping them along. That can only be a good thing, right?
Rips the clouds with his nose: he's arrogant. An expression of The Realm.
One of the core features/mysteries of my take on the Myth setting is that Emperor Alric has never ridden a horse or used cavalry in any way. No one knows why, but in the patriotic Realm everyone assumes that riding horses is bad in some way, or at least unpatriotic.
Acting the maggot: behaving foolishly. An expression of The Realm.
Wolf attack! I love wolves, and this was a great chance to let the players know that random events would also be present. Of course, if the party had been smaller, an entire wolf pack would've attacked them. But as it is, only one was brave enough to sneak past so many people.
Sketch of Fort Ywrmasr scribbled out by me during player character creation. Inspired by Roman motte and bailey forts used to fortify barbarian Europe.
Yes, all Heron Guard have funny names. And it is an insult and bad omen to give them nicknames. So nyah.
Parches the blood: to make afraid. An expression of The Realm. (I told you I gave everyone a colloquialism and culture sheet, right?)
I hate healing potions. I want players to have scars, to favor bad legs, and to fear the long-term effects of wounds they survive. So even though the Heron Guard have miraculous healing magic, I wanted the cost of that magic to be somewhat horrific. If you have a minor wound, you certainly don't want a Journeyman to look at it. (Description inspired by a foot incident I had back in my college days.)
He who pays the piper calls the tune: he who has the gold makes the rules. An expression of The Realm.
I told you things didn't pan out well for Muck. It gave me a sadistic GM happy to see my player grimace as I revealed the helpful NPC they'd saved had no life worth saving. Good times.
Wow, so congratulations on making it this far. I know that was a pretty mammoth wall of text, but a lot of the details of these early sessions are really important to later characterizations and themes. This covered a little more than two game sessions, too. And yes, that means that one session featured no fun violence except for a little wolf-slaying. That's how I roll as a GM, yo. Deal with my thespy nerdiness.
And as you should be well aware, tomorrow is the release of The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment in The Hobbit trilogy. Accordingly, I've got a crazy few hours ahead of me. Here's and overview:
8-10PM crash period. Nerd poppa needs sleep, occasionally. Or at least time laying down and mopily surfing the net on my Powerbook while watching kids' programming.
10-11PM critical caffeine period. Mountain Dew goes here. Just like being a punk kid all over again.
11-12AM go to movie theater. As a bonus, I use this pre-show time to creep people out by bringing a notepad to the movies. Few things are as disturbing to movie goers as to bring writing utensils to a film. "What're you going to do with that?" "I'm gonna manually bootleg the script, fool."
12-3:30AM watch Desolation of Smaug. This is the phase where I watch the film. Gripping, no?
3:30-4:30AM hangout and post nerdview. Just for the heck of it, I'm going to put up a link to a Google Hangout while I work on my nerdview post of the movie. If you're insane enough to want to join me in a little red-eye post-movie discussion while I type out my thoughts, watch my Google+ and Facebook pages for the link to be posted.