Author: mgarcia

Environment Matters: Improving Your Gaming Area

A wonderful thing about fantasy role-playing games is that they unfold mainly in the minds of the players. They are games of wonder and imagination. Players that keep this concept firmly in mind realize that they can play almost anywhere. Over the years, I’ve played AD&D (my game of choice) in basements, in dining rooms, in living rooms, and in a bedroom (sixth-grade sleepover). We’ve sat on floors, folding chairs and bar stools. We reclined on couches and played poolside on lounge chairs. To a limited extent, we once played in a car and while walking through a park. Your environment can be minimal, if necessary. A few sheets of paper, a pen, and some dice are all that is really needed (and the even dice are questionable). Nevertheless, a nice gaming area can indeed make the game session much more comfortable, more efficient, and more intense.

I have been blessed in that I have been able to play RPGs for over 25 years now, and I’m currently blessed with a comfortable home in which to play. Over the last few years, I decided to make small, incremental improvements to our area. Why not, especially if gaming is a consistent hobby? I am quite pleased with the results so far, but I’m always looking for small ways to improve further. Inspired by an article by Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips, I recently took stock of all my gaming area features, and I share my thoughts with you now. Perhaps an idea that I borrowed along the way might prove useful to your group. I would love any tips or suggestions that you might have.

A Good Table

The best shape is highly debatable and likely a matter of taste. Space requirements and cost are also important factors. However, almost everyone agrees that having a table is key to a good game. It allows players to connect with one another, and it builds intensity. Granted, I would game on the floor if I had to, but getting a good table is worth the effort.

My friend used to host our games for many years, but he eventually passed away. His brother asked if I would take the table and continue the tradition, and I accepted. The table was one that he had made from a sheet of 4′ x 8′ plywood. He slapped some sort of fiberboard over it. He then nailed 3″-wide strips of pine on all sides to give it some depth. On the underside, he attached the folding legs from a folding table. Thus, while a bit large and bulky, it does fold up. Initially, I wasn’t sure that I wanted this thing set up permanently in my basement so being able to take it down quickly helped to convince the wife to allow it. Once I set it up, I decided to spend 20 minutes to stain the sidepieces a walnut color. I also had strips of molding that were unused so I nailed them on and stained them as well. These were just minor touches, of course, but you no longer see unpainted lumber. As for size, we could fit seven players and a DM without a problem. As it is a bit wide, I opt to store a bunch of terrain and other stuff in the middle toward the DM screen. It makes for easy access, and it adds some atmosphere too.

Bookcases and Magazine Holders

Having easy access to many gaming books is obviously a bonus. My den, where we play, had some built-in shelves, which I used in the early days. However, after the wife warmed to the idea of the den being a gaming room, she suggested sprucing it up a bit. She found a mildly inexpensive, two-shelf, black, wooden bookcase from Target. As we had just received a nice tax return, I ordered seven of them. They now line the walls in certain areas. The ones behind the DM hold my figures, some terrain, and spare dice, while some nice candle holders, a lamp, and some knickknacks adorn the tops. Another case holds all of my RPG rulebooks and modules.

Atop two of the cases, I placed some decent looking magazine cases that I bought at Staples. Though only black faux leather, they do keep things looking neat and on the nicer side.

Side Tables

A friend gave us a spare wooden kitchen table. It’s somewhat small, and we don’t use it in the kitchen, but we didn’t want to throw it out. Thus, it now sits against one wall and is quite useful. I keep my portable LED tracing ‘table’/pad on it (not used during the game, but very handy to have out during game prep), along with other knickknacks. I also have another lamp on it. You can never have too much table space (or light).

I keep a smaller wooden table near the traditional DM spot at the head of the table. I keep more figures on it, along with several other props and a few binders.

Computer

I have no laptop, though that would be ideal, I guess. Instead, I have my iMac on an old computer table near the DM-side of the table. Though initially I used this only during game prep, I have come to use it more and more during play. I like having various audio files and soundtracks ready to play, and having the iMac within reach makes that easy. Also, I now keep several relevant documents open for easy reference. Furthermore, if the players catch me completely off-guard, it usually only takes me a minute to pull up the needed information from some other document on my hard drive.

A Brother laser printer sits on the same computer table, making it extremely convenient for game prep. It also makes it very easy to print a document during play if they need it.

Leather Armchairs

The den was a den before it was a gaming room so we have two old leather armchairs in there. Rather than get rid of them (we have no other place to put them, and we kind of like them), we put them up against a wall. When our smaller groups play, no one sits in them, though they do offer a nice break for anyone whose butt hurts or who wants a change of pace. In our larger group, one person usually sits in one, though he gets up during battles.

Terrain

I have very mixed feelings on terrain, though you wouldn’t know that from the amount that I have. I do love the atmosphere it brings, and it does make envisioning certain things much easier. However, I do not like having several rooms set up for each session (as many are wont to do when you have so much of it—and as pictured on Dwarven Forge’s website for obvious reasons). I’ve found that a pre-made layout ends up dictating the session instead of being a useful prop. No. We use terrain in almost every game, but it is always in a form that we can throw together and take apart very quickly. We’ll make a room or two at a time, as we go. This is why I opt to keep most of the terrain right on the table. The types of terrain pieces that we keep on the gaming table are those that we use often: about 50+ stone dungeon floor tiles (10′ x 10′), many stone dungeon wall tiles, some curved stone dungeon wall tiles, some cavern floor tiles, cavern wall tiles, cavern outcroppings, boulders (small and large), tree stumps, fallen trees, small trees, and large trees (lots of trees).

Other types of terrain that I keep in the bookcases include all kinds of treasures, furniture, boxes, crates, barrels, stone columns, campfires, etc. Actually, many of these things are so cheap and get so much use that I highly recommend picking them up. Unlike the Dwarven Forge sets (which are beautiful, but quite pricey), you can get these miscellaneous items rather cheaply. I prefer Legendary Realms for this small stuff (they have a store by me, but they are also on eBay, I believe).

At some point, I grew tired of putting back and then pulling out the same small pieces each session. I found a common plastic bin (maybe 6″ x 12″) and threw these small pieces in it. When we need those pieces, I just grab the bin from the bookcase.

Gaming Mats And Plexiglas

We have used several different types of vinyl wet-erase mats over the years (Chessex battle mats, for example), and we’ve also gone without a mat. I eventually decided that drawing a map on a mat was more trouble than it is worth. I hate to take game time to draw with any accuracy, while very poorly done maps cause more confusion than clarity. Also, the wet-erase markers never quite work perfectly so after a while you can see old drawings on the ‘clean’ mats, which stinks. There are also different types of vinyl maps; some are plain (often cream color), while others are gray and look like stone, and others are green to resemble a forest. Which to use?

I eventually settled on a large (48″ x 48″) green forest mat, which makes setting up a forest encounter extremely easy. With our vinyl mat permanently laid out, we just grab a handful of trees and boulders and scatter them about. When we want to make dungeons or caverns, we just grab the stone tiles and place them over the green mat (which soon disappears beneath them).

Plexiglas is an old gamer’s trick to keep those Avalon Hill-style folded maps pressed down flat so your cardboard unit counters don’t slide. I eventually obtained two small pieces for my table. They do not cover the whole thing (no need), but together they cover about half the table—the part where we have the mats and where we throw together dungeon tiles. This protects the mats and gives you a nice, hard, flat surface for figures.

The Plexiglas gives an added bonus too. There is usually some room around the perimeter, where we would not usually set up tiles or have figures. In those spots, I lift up the Plexiglas and throw some paper props underneath, like the menu to the local tavern, the prices at the local trading post, an index card of Varangian runes (so those PCs that ‘know’ the runes can just peer down to recall what they know), and an index card with the phases of the AD&D combat round (for newbies that may get confused).

Player Chairs and Snack Tables

We use black folding chairs, but they have padding on them, which makes them bearable. Again, players can always get up and sit in the two armchairs nearby if they want a break. I also have my computer chair for a player that doesn’t want to deal with folding chairs.

Though it’s unreasonable to ask players not to put stuff on the table, it is a secret pet peeve of mine because we lose so much space for props and figures. To mitigate the encroachment, I set up snack tables with coasters between every two chairs. For a touch of class, I have gargoyle coasters from Paris and square marble coasters from upstate NY.

Card Table of Snacks

On the other side of the den, about 10′ from the table, is a small card table with assorted snacks, drinks, and paper goods. My players are very comfortable in helping themselves to anything on the table. I usually provide some staples (pretzels, soda, flavored water, and iced tea), while each player often brings a small something. A 30-gallon, black, garbage bag is kept open over there, and it makes cleaning up afterwards a snap.

Cork-board

About two years ago, one group of players spent so much time arguing among themselves over priorities that they confused themselves and lost track of their objectives. Not great game-play, for sure. Though I believe in natural consequences, I did not want this tendency to ruin the game. Thus, I purchased a 35″ x 46″ cork-board, some push pins, and a stack of index cards. I taped a Sharpie to the top. I stash the board out of sight until game time, and then I just lean it against the treadmill, or wherever they want it. It definitely helped. My other groups do not need this so it remains out of sight.

Walls

Huh? Our den has old wooden paneling from the 1970s or 1980s. Not our cup of tea, but changing that is like #412 on our to-do list. How to make use of the paneled walls without ruining them? Masking tape. My current campaigns center on a large lake. A friend used a plotter at work to print an enlarged copy of the map. At his suggestion, I then taped it to the wall for the players to see. It’s great. It really draws players into the game. Everyone can see basics from the table, but anyone can also walk over and point out details. I do want to get a laser pointer so I don’t need to push past seated players to get to the map.

While thinking of the paneled walls as a giant bulletin board, I also printed out another fun prop and taped that to the wall. What was it? I asked every player to tell me which famous Hollywood actor would play each of his or her PCs. Then I found a good picture of each celebrity, dropped each into a Word doc, and labeled everyone. Now each party has a visual of all the other PCs in the party.

The best part about all this is that I can pull the stuff off the wall in about five minutes, if the need arises.

Custom DM Screen

Back when we were playing 3E, I wanted a custom DM screen for the many house rules that we had created. A friend suggested those black, foam, tri-fold, presentation boards, which you can pick up at Staples. I cut it down a bit. It’s 12″ high and has three sections. The center section is 24″ wide, and each of the two wings is 12″ wide. That’s a good-sized DM screen. I then printed out some great pictures, cut them out, and then used rubber cement to fix them to the players’ side of the presentation board. I then printed out my custom tables and affixed those to the DM side. I was quite happy with it and used it for many years. When we switched to AD&D, I made a new one for that.

Ironically, I no longer use it much, though it still sits in place near one head of the table. I seldom reference it, but it does serve to wall off some of my notes, my figures that I pulled out for use during the session, a stash of pencils, specialty dice, etc.

Extra DM Seat

Initially, as DM, I sat at the head of the table (very traditional). However, I disliked being so far away from the figures on the table, and I found myself having to get up constantly. As we have groups of three-five players on average, there is usually some extra room at the table. Thus, I took to sitting in one seat that would be next to the DM. Behind that spot, facing away from the gaming table, is the computer and printer. Thus, from that spot, I can access the computer, still slide into the traditional DM spot at the head of the table, and more easily get to the map and the figures on the table. As stupid as this may sound, I also find that it lessens the poisonous ‘players v. DM’ mentality. In that spot, I keep a cute dice tower and my DM dice for the night, as well as my index cards that I use to keep track of initiative. In that spot, I also keep an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of cardboard, with ten boxes drawn on it–one for each segment in a combat round. I place small chits on the boxes to note when the party and when the monsters go in a given round.

For a DM chair, I use a Gaiam rolling ball chair, which is comfortable and easy to kick out of the way, when I need to get up (which is still often).

Ambiance

Candles are fun—that is until you cannot see or until you get eyestrain. As much as I would love some sort of fancy lighting, getting my electrician to put in dimmer switches for the high hats is not in the cards at the moment. However, as the den has taken on a rather clubhouse feel, I hung three strings of small Christmas lights around the room, where the wall meets the ceiling (small finishing nails hold them up). I throw them on this time of year, or whenever I want to smile (they make me happy). Subconsciously, they add a warm, cozy feeling to the room.

I also have a few scented candles around the room, and though we don’t play by candlelight, I sometimes light the candles for fun. I also have a few battery-operated candles that look pretty realistic (I think Luminara is the expensive company that makes them, but there are cheaper ones on Amazon).

Memorial Cup

This is probably very atypical, but I’ll mention it anyway. I am very fortunate to have been part of a group that has been playing regularly for almost 40 years! Players have come and go, of course, but the core has remained for much of the duration. I joined them in 2002 or so, when they had already been going strong for about 20 years. My friend Doug hosted the group (he was the one that built the table, mentioned above). His childhood friend, Mike, was a permanent feature of the group from the start. Sadly, in 2015 Mike lost his bout with cancer. Refusing to be separated from his friend, Doug followed just months later. Well, it took us about six months to get over their passing, but we eventually recommenced play. With a nerdy nod to the movie Excalibur, we found a nice medieval-looking goblet and placed it on the table. When we play, we fill the cup in fond memory of Mike and Doug.

So there you have it. That’s our gaming area. Not long ago, a young solar panel technician came to the house to measure something, and when he walked downstairs and passed the den, he stopped in his tracks and said, “Whoa! What a setup!” He actually caught me off guard because I never really think of our setup as anything extraordinary. We have no mini-fridges, no projectors dropping down out of the ceiling, no mood lighting, etc. Yet, I guess when you improve things bit-by-bit, you don’t notice how far you’ve come. So I leave you with this challenge: Find one small way to improve your area as this year comes to a close. It need not be expensive. You needn’t spend money at all. Maybe it’s just how you arrange the furniture. Maybe it’s repurposing an old table that is gathering dust. Be creative. Better yet, ask your players to help. Ask them to make suggestions. They might even donate some doodads or toys to your area. I certainly inherited some features of mine. Great stories and the accompanying memories certainly make playing groups tighter, but so does a shared space. It’s your clubhouse. Make the most of it and have fun doing it.

Battle Among the Hill Ruins

This tale follows from the events of Tracks on a Moonless Night.


Image by Iwona Olczyk from Pixabay

Background

Sir Garrett of House Winchester and his retinue have been in the region around Blackwater Lake for months now, searching for Sir Garrett’s lost ancestral estate, named Falconridge, which once lay somewhere near the shores of the lake. After several adventures and misadventures, the Winchester party is now split into several groups.  Several members of the retinue are down south in the bustling city of Yarrvik, while others remain at Blackwater Keep or the nearby village of Lakesend. One remained near the ruined Temple of Pholtus, which the party recently explored. The rest of the Winchesters and their new unlikely allies, about two-dozen pilgrims of Pholtus, were to advance on the abandoned temple in force.  The Winchesters were to serve as an advanced guard that would lie in wait, hoping to flank the evil forces that would certainly attack the pilgrims of Pholtus, who formed the main body.  However, this plan derailed when dozens of strange, robed men ambushed the Winchesters in their forest camp at night, dragging off Master Gimlet and an allied man-at-arms named Brother Marcel.

After the battle, the Winchesters regrouped. Garrett sent three of his companions with all the horses toward the temple, where they hoped to meet up with the pilgrims. Meanwhile, Garrett, Alinachka, Brother Rolf, Ragnar, and Brother Carloman spent an hour plowing through the forest at night, following the enemy’s tracks and searching for their missing comrades. A small band of dark-robed figures ambushed this small group at a steep ravine, killing Brother Carloman and wounding several others. Several cultists slipped away during the fighting. Frustrated, the Winchesters continue the pursuit.

From the DM

I waffled on whether or not to lead the PCs to one of the villains’ lairs, where conversions are typically done. I decided that this would push them too far off course so instead I allowed the party to catch up to the captors and to rescue their companions. If the party is astute, they’ll realize that the fast-moving villains had ample time to escape. Just what did they do to the captives, and why did they allow the captives to be rescued? Next session, the PCs may be in for a surprise. Read more

Tracks on a Moonless Night

It’s been a while since we heard from the Winchesters. We now return you to another thrilling adventure in Northumbria!


Background

Sir Garrett of House Winchester and his retinue have been in the region around Blackwater Lake for months now, searching for Sir Garrett’s lost ancestral estate, named Falconridge, which once lay somewhere near the shores of the lake. After several adventures and misadventures, the Winchester party is now split into several groups. Cousin Modrak, Maggie, and Myles the Minstrel have taken ship southwards to the bustling city of Yarrvik, where they will meet with Myles’ rather wealthy merchant family, perhaps to cement a business relationship between his family and House Winchester. Meanwhile, Brother Lambert remained at the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Blackwater Keep to serve the curate of that shrine, Father Godfrey. In his spare time, he continued to browse through the small library there, looking for any old records on Falconridge. Master Magnus remained in the village, lodging at the Welcome Wench Inn and gathering any rumors that he could find on Falconridge. Yeoman Guilliman remained with him to keep the old man safe. The young elfin warrior-mage, Talvion Cormallen, was in the forest near the ruined Temple of Pholtus, which the party recently explored. Tal was waiting for the Winchesters’ impending return, keeping an eye on the temple complex and noting any enemy movements thereabouts. The Winchesters were confident that his elfin stealth would enable him to avoid detection and capture. The rest of the Winchesters and their new unlikely allies, about two-dozen pilgrims of Pholtus, were to advance on the abandoned temple in force. The Winchesters, after reuniting with Talvion, would serve as the advanced guard that would lie in wait, hoping to flank the evil forces that would certainly attack the pilgrims of Pholtus, who formed the main body.

From the DM

This encounter grew from the fact that I, as DM, was not fully prepared for the group to explore the temple further. Scrambling for time, I thought of a fun way to slow their progress—one that they would not mind. The previous session had been largely housekeeping so I thought to get started this time with combat. I also used the opportunity to introduce the PCs to the evil cult that has been operating behind the scenes. Thus far, they had only run into the goblyn hordes, controlled by the cult. To make the most of an otherwise routine trip, I also threw in a new NPC group that I wanted to introduce. That would allow them to role-play, and it would also eat time. Read more

Treasure Division: A Case Study From Northumbria

This scene takes place between part 2 and part 3 of “Terror in the Tower.”


Background

The session began with the PCs back in the village of Lakesend, in between forays to the ruined temple of Pholtus. At some point, the PCs had an interesting discussion on treasure division, and I, as DM, played the various NPCs in the party. It was an interesting rebirth of an age-old dilemma, namely ‘How should treasure be divided?’ I submit that by letting players grab whatever they want without forcing them to think, you miss some good role-playing opportunities.

Cast of Characters

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers.

Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Sir Raynard: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Raymond: NPC (Fighter 1), stoic and responsible
Owen: NPC (Ranger 1), introverted and self-sufficient
Kieran: NPC (Magic User 1), gentle and intelligent
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), new squire to Sir Callum

Narrative

Day 25, Eighth Moon

That evening after supper, the family casually discussed treasure division. Here are some bits of the conversation:

KIERAN BECKETT: “We are a family, and we have always worked as a team. Some of us perform very basic and very boring duties so that others are free to perform tasks for Lord Balin or to further the family’s interests. Owen has led a few of our kin on hunting expeditions almost every single day. Elwood and I have been gathering food, fishing, and caring for the shepherd’s sheep every single day—part of our agreement with Lord Balin. Since we share duties—exciting or otherwise—perhaps we should share spoils to some degree. Personally, I am less concerned with spending money than I am with restoring our family’s wealth by discovering the secret to those Cimbrian blades that we captured. Perhaps, each time we come into some wealth, we can put a very small percentage aside for those efforts? There is so much that I need to purchase or to acquire for proper research.”

SERGEANT BLAINE FORESTER (from his sick bed): “The Becketts will always have my loyalty and my halberd. I need no fancy trinkets, but some coin to buy a beer each day would be welcome. That is all. I used to serve for pay when you had your estate. Of course, when we were displaced, I did not expect you to pay me a wage. Now that we are coming into some coin though, perhaps a few coins each month would be possible. It is a small matter at the end of the day though.”

OWEN BECKETT: “Granny has kept us all on our feet more times than we can count. All those herbs and strange concoctions must cost something. Something tells me that we shall need her services many times in the future. It might be wise to take a small percentage of whatever we gain and put it towards restocking her stash of elixirs and such. Elwood and I could probably find all of her herbs for free, but feeding the family every day has consumed all of our time and energy. I am exhausted, by the way.”

RAYMOND BECKETT: “Along similar lines, it would not hurt to make small regular donations to both the Temple of St. Cuthbert, here in the village, and the shrine in the Keep. Sooner or later, we may need more than Granny’s healing, and the clerics will have to ask themselves why they should help us. Sure, Brother Lewie has connections with the curate and Brother Liam has ties to the vicar, but do not forget that we are newcomers here. They barely know us, and they are preparing for a major siege. Healing us with anything beyond minor salves and poultices may not be very high on their priority list.”

ACOLYTE DENSTON BECKETT: “From experience, I do not expect you heathens to worship the one true God (Pholtus), but it is only fitting that you allot me the same amount of coin that you dedicate to your temple or shrine. I must have something to donate on our behalf.”

DAGIS: “I require no coins. Sir Callum… and you all… have provided me with meals; a warm, dry place to sleep; and protection; as well as some armor and a weapon. I need little else.”

SIR RAYNARD BECKETT (throwing a handful of walnuts at Dagis): “That’s because you are a squire! We are supposed to provide for you, and you are supposed to be poor until you make something of yourself some day… maybe… if you live. The rest of us are not squires. I’m not greedy, but I like gold as much as the next man. I shall happily accompany or lead the next expedition. I need a break from hunting anyway. As a sport, it is good fun. As an occupation, it is drudgery.”

KENRICK THE KENNELMAN: “I have felt rather useless as a kennelman since we lost our pack of hounds back home. On your advice, I found employment with Lord Balin, assisting his kennelman and caring for his hounds. I need little else, but I agree with Blaine that a few silver moons to buy a drink would be nice. As much as my employer treats me well, I am still your man as long as you would have me. Say the word and I shall return to your active service.”

FINN THE FARRIER: “I too am working each day for Lord Balin, on your orders. Though I sought employment with the armorer, seeking to learn some of his trade, they had need of my skills with horses so I work each day in the baronial stables. There is no pay, but I have shelter, food, and drink. They even offered me permanent employment, but I told them that I remain in the service of the Becketts. A wage of some sort would be nice though. I leave the details to you.”

MARIN THE PILOT: “I will take whatever you give me. I am grateful that you tried to save my pa. For that, you have my service. As long as I have food, drink, a place to sleep, and some protection, I am yours. I never had no armor or more than a staff or sling, but I get by just fine. I can ferry your anywhere on the lake, run errands, and find out many things from the locals. I am a decent cook too.”

ELWOOD BECKETT: “I have been talking with some of the locals, and I heard of a few people that live together in the forest, sharing all of their food, clothing, and equipment. Each person contributes what he can, depending on his skills, and takes whatever he really needs. When they get donations or gifts from new members, they divide it equally among them all. When they need coin for something, they all decide what to do.”

RAYNARD BECKETT (throwing walnuts at Elwood this time): “Like that would ever work. Be quiet.”

KIERAN BECKETT: “My good cousin is correct in that we cannot go leaderless. The idea of equality is silly, but we might learn something useful from even these strange forest denizens.”

RAYNARD BECKETT (picking up more walnuts): “Forest what?”

KIERAN BECKETT (his hands raised to shield his face): “People that live in the forest, cousin. We could learn even from them. We might take a small percentage of each windfall and divide that equally so that all have at least a few coppers to spend in the village. In this village, we may need to make it a few silvers, as everything is so overpriced. With a small percentage going to spending money and a small percentage going to research, Lord Roger could divide the rest as he sees fit, paying for training, buying supplies, or awarding more coin to those that deserve it most. ”

Sir Raynard put down his handful of walnuts, but discussion continued for some time…

GRANNY: “While we have just come into considerable coin it has been spent on debt and training. We are barely out of the red. Though once the family is once again profiting, the whole family will profit as well as those who have served us and become as family in our darkest hour. No one’s loyalty will go unrewarded. As for tithing to the churches, the gods are always generous, but their clergy still needs to eat. We will remember them as well once the income we are receiving exceeds the debts we are incurring. The family will prosper again, our reputation will shine once more, we will be restored.”

JADE (playing with her arrows): “As much as I like gold in my pocket, I agree to share the wealth. Our debt is still there, but we have paid off a large portion of it already. Training should be a focus. Plus, I am quite curious to see how the rest of you handle a battlefield.”

BJORN: “I share the coin, but never the glory! The glory and accolades belong to me! Okay, maybe me and Sven. Yeah, the glory all belong to me and Sven! Well… and some of the good weapons and armor. Okay… All the glory belongs to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor! Oh… and some coin for new boat. Okay…  All the glory belongs to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor and some coin for new boat. Oh… and the good booze! Okay…  All the glory belong to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor and some coin for new boat and the booze. Oh… never mind! Bjorn share some of the loot. Let us go smash something interesting!”

SVEN: “And pie! I like pie… And maybe some private time with the bear cub that we saved… once she gets older that is. I’m not some sort of a freak you know! We make strong kids!”

Sir Raynard threw a handful of walnuts at the grinning Varangian.

Compendium of the Land Surrounding Blackwater Lake — Table of Contents

 

An Introduction, and Of the Barony of Blackwater

Of Blackwater Keep, and the Inhabitants Therein

Of Lakesend Village, and its Commerce

The Blackwater, its Denizens, and the Lands Surrounding

Various Peoples of Northumbria, and the Cultures

Of Elves

Of Frangians

Of Zeelanders

Of Varangians

The States and Rulers in the Western Lands


In addition to the materials in the above Gazetteer, here are some further notes and systems useful for adventuring in Northumbria:

Languages of Northumbria

The Moons of Northumbria

Rules for an Exorcism Ritual

 


Dungeon Master Michael Garcia runs two games in Northumbria. These are a few adventures featuring the Winchester family:

Screams in Store

Battle on the Beach

Brigands Rock

 

Here are some tales of the Beckett family:

Ants in the Darkness

Treasure Identification

Terror in the Tower, Part 1

Treasure Division (Still to come!)

Terror in the Tower, Part 2

The Investigation Falters

Terror in the Tower, Part 3

Trial by Combat

The Battle of Heinrich’s Horn


The Editor would like to extend his warmest thanks to Michael for sharing his setting and these play reports. We hope that many more are forthcoming! If you’re enjoying the adventures, please let us know in the comments sections!

States and Rulers of the Western Lands

One final entry in the Compendium on Lands Around Blackwater Lake.


Northumbria, Frangian Province of

His Grace, Jonathan Prestwick, Duke of Northumbria

Capital: Yarrvik (pop 6,000)
Population: 70,200
Population Density: 12-13 people per square mile
Area (in square miles): 50,000 (only ~5,460 controlled)
Hexes: 7+ (population controlled)

Hex with Yarrvik (780 x 40 = 31200)
Hex with Albanton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex north of Yarrvik (780 x 8 = 6,240)
Hex with Kingstown (780 x 2 = 1,560)
Hex with East Hampton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex with Middleton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex southwest of Yarrvik (780 x 5 = 3900)
Hex south of Yarrvik (780 x 5 = 3900)

Other Notable Settlements:

Albanton (3000)
Kingstown (2250)
East Hampton (1680)
Middleton (1260)

Fortifications: Yarrvik’s citadel
Resources: Lumber, furs and skins, fish, horses, rye, oats, fruit, superior building stone (basalt), syrup, and manufactured goods (ships)

This vast province, only recently claimed by the Crown, has great potential for wealth and power, but it also holds great danger. King Richard personally appointed his long-time friend, Jonathan Prestwick, to rule this sprawling frontier province. In actuality, the Duke only controls the regions around the major settlements. Read more

The Battle of Heinrich’s Horn

Another tale in the saga of the Beckett Family’s adventures in Northumbria! These events follow Trial by Combat


Background

The session began with the PCs at the foot of Heinrich’s Horn, a steep and rocky hill about two leagues east of Blackwater Lake. Lord Balin Blackwater had just awarded the Beckett family the whole of Hickory Mountain, a rugged wilderness area of roughly a hundred square miles! Heinrich’s Horn sits at the southeast corner of that mountain. Lord Balin’s first command to his Beckett vassals was to clear the Horn of a band of wicked robber knights, who had recently established a camp there. They were to bring the brigands, especially the two leaders, Sir Raynald of Setmoor and Sir Aglovale of Kolkirk, back to Blackwater Keep, dead or alive. Two days ago, Lord Roger Beckett led a force of fifteen kinsmen and friends, bolstered by eight mercenaries, to the foot of the Horn. The winding path up the side of the hill—the only approach available to most—was treacherous, but they had a plan. Read more

Blackwater Lake

This document is another piece of the Compendium of Lands Surrounding Blackwater Lake, compiled for Lord Beckett by Talvion Tulossa of Clan Cormallen. The Compendium is thus far incomplete, for the Becketts arrived at Blackwater before a full survey could be performed.


BLACKWATER LAKE

Nestled between several ranges of hills, Blackwater Lake is a narrow body of water that stretches for about 30 miles from north to south. The cold, deep waters of the lake, though only a few miles wide, allow for easy transportation of valuable goods. The lake drains northward and forms the source of the Blackrun River, which flows northward about 100 miles to the ruined capital of the old Northern Realm of the Varangians. Just south of Blackwater Lake are the headwaters to the Blackwater River, which flows southward for roughly 250 miles and leads to the chief Frangian city in Northumbria, the port of Yarrvik.

Lying directly between these two great waterways is the tiny hamlet of Lakesend. Realizing long ago that the site was perfectly suited to control the waterways, royal agents established a keep at the southern tip of the lake, not far from the hamlet.

Blackwater Gobalds

Legends say that a clan of gnomes left the forests around Blackwater Lake centuries ago, and its members have survived as waterborne scavengers ever since. Known to lake region residents as gobalds, they supposedly organize themselves into egalitarian communes in the form of armored warships. Each such “turtle ship” is a large, sail-powered, slow-moving vehicle with multiple decks, auxiliary oars, and armor plating. The ship is large by human standards, making it downright spacious for the three-foot-tall gobalds. This ship provides them with shelter, transportation, and defense—all in one.

Based on all accounts, gobalds are essentially pirates, but their small stature places limits on their ventures. They do not attack large or well-manned ships, choosing instead to prey on small craft or lone travelers. They ply the waters of the lake almost exclusively at night, for their night vision allows them to travel undetected, to avoid confrontations, and to ambush small craft. Gobalds do not limit themselves to the water, but they are never far from their turtle ship. Often, they will dock their ship and venture a mile or so inland, organized into small raiding parties, looking to ambush lone hunters, trappers, miners, pilgrims, and other travelers. Though they will not exclusively do so, they prefer to ambush at night, as their night vision makes their night attacks just as effective as those in the daylight, while enemies suffer significant disadvantages in battle.

In their depredations, they seldom aim to kill, for their main interest is plunder. Whether they get their loot on land or sea, they aim to sell it at bargain prices to the scattered residents around the lake. They are competent leatherworkers and blacksmiths, able to repair tools, basic armor, and basic weapons—at least enough for sale. According to guards that have patrolled the lake for years, the gobalds have also developed a symbiotic relationship with the many human pirates that operate in these waters, purchasing excess weapons, armor, and equipment that the pirates do not want for half its standard value. In return, they are often exempt from pirate hostility, the pirates seeing them as useful ‘fences’. Gobalds usually sell their wares for standard rates, and since rates for most goods in the lake region are inflated to three times the standard rates, many communities deal with the gobalds despite an inherent disapproval of their methods.

A band of travelling gnomes shared with me that gobalds live almost entirely on various forms of mushrooms that grow all about the lake. In some places, they have hidden mushroom patches in the forest, which they harvest every few weeks. They drink mainly water, and even stagnant water does not seem to bother them or make them sick. Gobalds are reportedly highly resistant to magic and poison.

Gobalds dress in rough-spun, gray-green monastic-style robes, over which they have leather bandoliers. Though all work for the enrichment of the commune, they effectively embrace personal poverty, which explains their meager dress. Quite often, their clothing is dirty and musty-smelling. Though they bathe often enough, their preference for the interiors of their dark and gloomy ships, as well as their habit of nighttime travel, means that their clothing is often fouled by mold. Yet, they seem to have developed immunity to both its smell and its effects. In fact, gobalds are known for their hardy health, despite their foul food and dank living conditions. When in a natural setting, such as woods or hills, gobalds move very quietly and blend into vegetation so well that they are nearly invisible.

Gobalds try to avoid open battle, but their ambushes do carry a degree of risk so they sometimes wear light leather armor beneath their robes. As for weapons, they favor light crossbows, javelins, and half-spears, but their primary weapon is a paralytic substance that they obtain from a rare mushroom and then concentrate. They put this substance on all of their weapons, and they presumably carry an ample supply of antidotes. It takes only one minute to take effect and then renders a human victim helpless for several minutes. This is usually long enough for the gobalds to rob or to capture the victim.

Gobalds can largely speak the language of the forest gnomes, though their own language has significant variations. They also speak Frangian, albeit with a choppy dialect that makes it almost incomprehensible. Hand signals greatly aid communication. Their speech is fast and choppy.

Gobalds seem to have lost their ancestors’ inherent mining skills, but instead they have developed inherent navigation and mariner skills. They never seem to become lost, and they seem undeterred by fog or darkness. As for seafaring skills, they can sense coming storms. Ironically, at such times they rarely dock, but rather take to the open waters of the lake, perhaps because the turtle ships are incredibly well built and buoyant. Though one may pitch and roll, it will seldom take damage at while on the lake, whereas pounding waves may smash to bit any ship near the shore.

Little is known about gobald society. Rumors indicate that most females and children dwell in underground lairs near the lake. Upon reaching adulthood, male gobalds take up service in the turtle ship. There is a legend that female shamans oversee gobald society, and that males hold all other positions of importance.

Rumors Related to the Lake

  1. Blackwater Lake is bottomless. Its waters run down deep into the earth, far below the sight of mortal man.
  2. A giant sea monster dwells in the depths of the lake. Over two-dozen witnesses have seen it at one time or another. Most describe it as a pale serpent, longer than a carrack. There the agreement between their descriptions ends. Some mention worm-like tentacles, dripping with slime, and others mention six or more heads with black beady eyes.
  3. A giant dragon—pale as a grave worm—dwells in a burrow near the lake’s edge.
  4. Barbarian legends say that a meteor strike formed this lake centuries ago. Its impact left a giant scar on the land that later filled with water. Over time, the meteor’s energies somehow changed the waters, giving them their distinctive black hue.
  5. The lake’s waters bring strange powers when enough are imbibed.
  6. The lake’s waters are poisonous.
  7. The vile goblyns that swarm the mountainsides of Northumbria have their origins in black underground waters. They are not natural creatures. They do not breed or eat or sleep. Instead, they spawn from black subterranean waters at the will of their dark god, Maglubiyet. Blackwater Lake is a rare spot where those dark subterranean waters touch the surface.
  8. Blackwater Lake contains a strange blackish metal that is worth many times its weight in gold. It is so hard that no normal fire can smelt it. It must be cold-wrought, requiring weeks to craft a single blade. Smiths must use special techniques to give such a blade an edge, but it will punch through normal iron with relative ease.
  9. The strange blackish metal found in Blackwater Lake is somehow deadly against unnatural creatures such as demons, restless spirits, and werewolves.

Points of Interest

Smaller Bodies of Water

Long Pond

Streams descending from Settlers Mountain gather in this narrow basin about a league in length. From there the water runs past Lakesend on its way to form the headwaters of the mighty Blackwater River. During heavy rains and the spring thaw, the water rises high enough to overspill its banks just upstream of the village. The overflow cascades down to the Narrows below the Keep. Occasionally the river threatens to divert entirely to this secondary channel, but the Baron pays to have the main bed dredged in order to preserve the income from tolls on the East Bridge.

Martin’s Cove

The Narrows

This narrow body of water is the extreme southern tip of Blackwater Lake, extending in a crescent from the site of Blackwater Keep southward to the Blackmoor. The waters of the Narrows are shallow, so merchants do not send large ships to dock at the Keep, instead sending smaller boats to unload cargo.

Rockteeth Cove

Silvercrest Cove

Steffan’s Spring

Stillwater Pond

Whitehart Lake

Caves and Caverns

Drucker’s Den

The Pens

Hills, Peaks and Passes

Baldface Peak

Baldwin’s Bluff

Belford’s Ridge

Black Bear Mountain

Boulder Hill

In 604 FR, Duke Leopold of Ostmark arrived in the lake region with 1000 well-armed men and countless mercenaries to drive out the goblyns. They crushed an army at Boulder Hill, though the noble Duke died of his wounds. This defeat set the goblyns back, but it was the last effort made by men. Just a few years after the battle, goblyn numbers began swelling once again.

Brigands Rock

Burke’s Hill

Craig’s Peak

Falcons Eyrie

Foster’s Ridge

Hammond’s Hill

Hanover’s Hill

Hickory Mountain

The Horns

Lonewolf Mountain

Rumor has it that a werewolf haunts this rugged mountain. At the very least, a large black wolf is often sighted prowling by itself in the forests here or baying at the moon on the mountaintop. A few dozen settlers live independently in small wooden huts on the sides of this mountain. Baronial tax collectors have had little luck getting taxes or fealty from these settlers. Most are woodsmen and hunters.

Luthor’s Leap

Mount Melias

Mount Smestad

Parisi Point

Legend says, long before the naming of the lands, a star fell from the skies and sheared off the north face of the mount now known as Parisi Point. The event created a crater at the base of the hill that filled with water and since has been known as Moon Lake. The lake’s waters are rumored to be poisonous, and periodically its heated waters bubble to super-heated levels and release noxious gases that keep the area entrenched in a sickening fog. The lowland areas between the lake and mount have become wetlands, and the small swamp is always filled with mist and fog that tends to disorient travelers through the area. People often become lost when passing through, and many have disappeared entirely, with growing rumors of a magic fog, creature, or mystical forces blamed for the disappearances.

Another feature of lore is a suspected vein of an unknown metal that was exposed, or introduced, to the landscape in the sheared face of the hill. The substance, again according to legend, has been used in the magical conjuring and religious rites of the ancient peoples of the area. It is unknown what methods were used to explore the area, or locate and collect the material. Many have searched for the ore only to end in failure and folly.

An Aquilonian lord, a ranger by the name of Gregorius Parisius, took up residence in the area and became intrigued by the rumors. Despite decades of searching, growing a consuming obsession, and witnessing strange happenings, Gregor didn’t locate a vein, but he was able to find a small amount of some strange ore. He used the metal to forge a small axe that is reportedly indestructible and holds magical properties that helped the ranger defeat and drive back the goblyns in the realm.

The method and means used to forge the axe blade, along with Gregor and the axe itself, have been long-lost in history. It is rumored that Gregor disappeared on or around Parisi Point, in search of more ore, possibly overrun by the goblyns he fought hard to drive away. Others claim the axe possessed the ranger and granted him an extended life, and that it is he that ambushes passers-by, hoping to keep them from his find. Several bits of terrain surrounding the hill have taken the name of this mostly unknown figure, including Parisi Point for the hill, Gregor’s Grotto to the poisoned lake and its surrounds, and Gregor’s Swamp for the surrounding wetlands.

The swamp is also known as the Walking Wood, as it propensity to disorient travelers has led some to say the trees move to change and obscure trails. Some have even said there are dangerous plants and flora that poison or attack infiltrators. Other claim to have witnessed—or been attacked by—goblyns when passing through the region.

Pilgrims’ Mountain

Over three decades ago, clerics of St. Cuthbert erected a small shrine on the top of this rocky peak, but a small earthquake caused it to collapse, and it has never been rebuilt.

Runestone Peak

An ancient black monolith, made from some unknown stone and carved with indecipherable runes, sits atop this lofty peak, one of the highest in the region. Travelers weave many strange tales about the monolith and the peak on which it sits. Some tales tell of diabolic gatherings, human sacrifices, and witches’ covens.

Russel’s Pass

Saint’s Peak

Settlers Mountain

Traders Pass

William’s Pass

Wyverns Peak

Islands

Berel’s Island

Carlon’s Prize

This small island received its name in 506 FR, after a Frangian expedition crushed the Cruthni Picts. The leader of the expedition, Count Carlon, had many enemies in the provincial court at Yarrvik, and rather than receiving a large swath of territory as a reward, he received only this tiny island.

Eric’s Island

Hunters’ Island

This small island features a safe haven of the Huntsmen. They maintain a sizable lodge there.

Sanctuary Rock

About this large rocky island near the center of the lake swirl strange currents that defy all explanation. Swimming in these strong and unpredictable currents has proven deadly on several occasions. A very rich merchant named Jehan of St.-Martin donated a large sum of coin to build several structures on the island, including a large hospital, for he had a young sister that required special care. A small but dedicated staff attends to the unfortunates here.

The island’s geography makes access extremely difficult. Aside from the strange currents, only one area is suitable for mooring, and only during a specific part of the day, when the weather is fair. The inmates never leave so there is seldom a problem. These factors led the Baron to construct a special prison there for a few noble prisoners that he spared from the axe but dared not release. The island also features a lighthouse to warn off passing ships.

A small, select Baronial garrison patrols the island constantly to keep out the curious and to keep in the condemned. All guardsmen answer to the caretaker of the Island, who attends to prisoners and lunatics alike. The guardsmen, almost all of who have committed some serious crime and received a life sentence, live well on Sanctuary Rock and have no desire to leave.

Rushes Island

Wycliffe Island

DRY DOCK FACILITY

The Guild maintains a small dry-dock facility on a sandy shore of the island. This facility is adjacent to a rather placid, deepwater bay. The facility consists of a stone wall surrounding a stone building or two, as well as a number of wooden outbuildings.
Something, believed to be a force of goblyns, recently overran this facility and slew almost all of the staff. We found their charred remains in a pit.

BATTLE RIDGE

CEMETERY RIDGE

CHAPEL HILL

This grassy hill sits on the southern edge of the island, overlooking the lake. At its crest is Wycliffe Chapel.

GALLOWS HILL

TOWER OF MANATHANMOCH

As it has for untold centuries, a towering column of giant basalt seems to protrude from the sides of the limestone cliffs on Wycliffe Island. Measured from its base, it rises over 1100 feet, though its rises only about 800’ above the surface of the lake. Called Manathanmoch’s Tower, the eerie structure obtained its current name from a bloodthirsty Pictish king, who ruled this island and terrorized the denizens of the lake region some three hundred years ago. It is largely believed that he lived in this strange and formidable tower, its size and grandeur reflecting his power, and its dark and foreboding architecture reflecting the fear he engendered. After his unexplained disappearance, his fierce Cruthni clansmen dominated the region for decades more, using their primitive longships to raid and plunder surrounding settlements. The only known scroll that mentions Cruthni civilization, the incomplete Chronicle of Painted Kings, written by an anonymous Varangian sage, recalls that the Cruthni fell from power because of some mysterious disaster that suddenly befell them. It is clear that not all perished, for years later, when Frangian knights first explored the lake region, they clashed repeatedly with Cruthni warriors. Yet those Picts, easily swept aside, were but shadows of their former kinsmen.

WYCLIFFE CHAPEL

This multi-denominational chapel, built in a neo-Frangian style, features buttresses, flying buttresses, and large stained-glass windows with pointed arches. Inside are four separate chapels, dedicated respectively to Pholtus of the Blinding Light, Celestian the Far Wanderer, Saint Cuthbert, and Boccob the Uncaring. There are also two separate crypts for notable servants of the Blackwater family, while a third crypt is reserved for members of the family. A force of goblyns recently overran this facility, desecrating some of the chapels.

Landings and Moorings

Belcastro’s Landing

Trappers Landing

Man-Made Structures

Ash Hollow Camp

Fort Angus

Horik’s Tower

The Moat House

Pine Ridge Camp

Shrine to Celestian

Shrine to Fhalanghan

Temple of Pholtus

Zeelander Trading Post

Peninsulas

Beacon Point

Watchtower Point

White Birch Point

Widow’s Point

Swamps

The Blackmoor

Stillwater Swamp

 

Trial by Combat

We return to the frontier of Northumbria for another Beckett Family adventure. 


Background

See the Blackwater Keep article for a key to this map.

The session began with the PCs newly returned from a foray to the ruined temple of Pholtus on nearby Settlers Mountain. They made it back to Blackwater Keep just in time to keep a dinner appointment with Lord Balin Blackwater. Several members of the party were still sorely wounded from the recent encounter with the indescribable ‘terror in the tower.’ Just before departing for the Keep, some Beckett kinsmen learned that the hated Mandrakes, their archenemies, some of whom had recently arrived in the Barony, had been active in their absence. The leader of the Mandrake party here was Sir Mallory, the second son to the cunning and twisted Mandrake patriarch, Lord Terrick. Several Becketts spotted Sir Mallory hunting and hawking with Lord Balin on the previous day, and many feared that he was poisoning Balin’s mind toward them. They were anxious about the impending dinner engagement.

Read more

Blackwater Keep

Part two of the Compendium of Lands Around Blackwater Lake, the gazetteer for the Northumbria campaign.


Strategic Location of the Keep

The Keep is a large stone fortress—one of the largest in Northumbria. Situated on the shores of Blackwater Lake, it commands the Narrows at the southern tip of the lake, as well as the wide stream called the Norbeck, which flows down from the hills and spills northwards into the Narrows and southwards into the Blackwater River. This means that the garrison at the Keep can control river traffic flowing between former Varangian lands in the north to the Frangian port of Yarrvik. Any power that wishes to control Northumbria needs to control the river traffic and thus the keep. At present, no single known state is in a position to do so. Thus, the Baron of Blackwater remains independent and highly desirable as an ally. Read more