Tag: roleplaying

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

This is RPG-ology #28:  Character Death, for March 2020.


A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death.  The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject.  So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it.  Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.

I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played.  It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set.  My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief.  There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.

I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral.  I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played.  I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type.  In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.

The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game.  After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible.  One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.

That, though, is the other side of the coin.  For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake.  A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away.  It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character.  I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming.  Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting.  Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.

I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.

The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world.  Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath.  The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember.  If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush.  Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.

The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.

One way to do this is to have players run more than one character.  I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type.  This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.

Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin.  Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party.  In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.

Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper.  Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.

I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem.  When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe.  Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot.  It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.

So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities.  Find a way to do that in your games.


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Sewers and Such

Someone once wrote that good Game Masters seem to know a little bit about everything. If it’s not obvious, this is because they need to know how the world works so they can make their own game settings seem real. I know this first-hand from years of running fantasy campaigns. At one point or another, I found myself digging into the details of agriculture, mining, free diving, sailing, carpentry, sheep breeding, the wool trade, and a dozen other subjects that I never imagined I would research. Of course, this is not limited to fantasy role-playing. When running Gamma World or some other apocalyptic game, a good GM probably needs to know a little about modern firearms, lasers, nuclear radiation, mutation, the ecology of a wasteland, etc. Running Traveller or another sci-fi game, the GM should probably know something about the vacuum of space, space travel, planets, stars, asteroids, comets, gravity, etc. You get the idea.

Not long ago, M.J. Young of the Christian Gamers Guild penned a few short articles on very generic topics, like waterways, country roads, and cities. Though at face value they seem too generic to be helpful, the articles can be surprisingly useful to GMs. Great GMs might know a little about everything, but they don’t start off like that. Everyone needs to pick up basics from someplace, and MJ’s articles were great for anyone not already knowledgeable about those topics. Even veterans can glean some points that they had never considered.

In this brief article, I‘ll touch on another topic that seems like it could be useful to many GMs—sewers. I cannot count the times that I’ve seen modules or homemade adventures with wererats skulking through labyrinthine sewers. Strangely, though I’ve been playing for over thirty-five years, I never played in or ran such an adventure. I recently decided to add a sewer setting to an ongoing campaign, but I realized that I had to find out something about sewers first. As with most things, one topic connects to many others. In this case, I found it tough to examine sewer systems without simultaneously looking at water supplies and plumbing. Read more

Christ and the Dice #2: My Current Game (a brief overview)

I have played in and run many games, and many types of games, over the years. From high fantasy to low, from games of nobles intriguing to pirates at sea, I have been on a star-ship crew and run with a coterie of vampires, vast epics and simple one shots, and everything in between. And drawing from all of those gaming experiences I feel that I can safely say that my favorite type of game is an Epic Good Guy game in a fantasy setting.

While I have had a lot of fun with most games I have played in and run, nothing seems to beat running an epic story with a diverse party of good guys—which is why I am enjoying my group’s current game so much. I am running a largely high fantasy game, set in our home brewed world, using D&D 3.x (plus our house rules).

The world we are playing in is one that several of my friends and I started working on more than two decades ago. It is a collaborative effort that several of us have continued to this day. (We still haven’t named it, we just call it the Composite World.)

The game so far has taken place on a continent named Oirth, in and around the Empire of Torell. The party has four members, three of whom are from Torell; the fourth is from far away. They are all some flavor of Good for their alignments and spend more time, in character, worrying about doing good than they worry about getting loot.

The nominal leader of the party is Van, a half-elf paladin/priest following the god of knowledge. This character is interesting to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is both of his parents were half-elves. His father was born full human, but he drank from a magic pool that turned him into a half-elf. Also both his father and his mother were PCs in a previous campaign, and his father’s parents were PCs in a game before that!

Van’s “wife” is Xu, a warrior monk from a powerful and rich nation state known as Cho, which is far away from our empire. The word wife is in quotes because in the back story they developed, it was decided that Van and Xu traveled together in a great caravan and at one point came upon a village where, unknowingly, they met the requirements to be husband and wife by the village’s customs. So they had to agree that they were married (that is all that it took there, no ceremony needed). And since then, Van, being a religious and honest type has presented them as married, while Xu keeps denying it, providing some amusing comic relief.

Shrike is a human wizard/rogue, and was a friend of Van’s from their youth. Though he largely grew up on the streets, he hasn’t let that turn him from the path of good. It could be because his master, the wizard who taught him how to control his magic, was gentle but adamant about doing the right thing. And while he is definitely a good guy, he seems to be the most interested in worldly riches. And spell books, always spell books.

Our final party member is Raif the halfling bard/druid. He was raised in small village in Bain’s Hope Forest, a large forest in Torell, and he grew up interacting with the fey, elves, and the immortal human Bain, whom the forest is named for. This has made for a character who is largely innocent, devoutly good and, until he began adventuring with our party, very naive about “civilization”. He may have a touch of fey blood in his lineage, or maybe it’s a bit of dragon blood, but there is something a little otherworldly about him. And he travels with a big celestial dog named Loup. I should mention that Loup is a Very Good Dog, just ask Raif, or wait a few minutes and he will tell you.

The characters who already knew each other met Raif in the backstory we developed for the game. This happened when Raif ran into them while they were trying to deal with an evil sorcerer who was despoiling the forest Raif called home. After a spring, a summer and a fall of adventuring together to defeat this vile evil, they wintered in a village on the edge of the forest, which is where and when the game proper began.

The story started out simple enough, with a lieutenant of the empress’s own guard asking them to investigate a missing agent in a relatively nearby but hostile kingdom, Kand. They traveled to the nearest port city, Serrael, and took a sail to the capital of Kand, where they encountered the blatant bigotry of a very xenophobic nation. It quickly became apparent that they didn’t like this nation. While there they fought some giant spiders in a nearby forest, and in town they defeated a couple of evil fighters, one of which was being influenced by an evil intelligent sword.

The party was able to establish an underground branch of the empire’s church through some few faithful who lived there. They were attacked by the secret police, though they were not identified. Through some subterfuge and careful planning, they were able to rescue the agent, and his wife, and smuggle them out of the kingdom and back to home.

During their adventures in Kand, they recovered a very old set of full plate from their home empire, and decided that they should try to return it to the family, if any remained. They also formed a profitable mushroom import business (it was a cover that paid off handsomely). Also in Kand they began to get the first clues that the Servants of Sutek (an evil god) were active again.

On their way home they took care to drop the evil sword in the deep ocean. And upon their return from Kand they spent a week resting at a very nice upscale inn, on the empire’s coin. They took this down time to learn some spells, identify some magic items and to spend some gold.

As their rest week came to an end our intrepid adventures were approached by a high ranking member of the church, and asked to travel far to the north, across the sea to the land of Hest. They knew that Hest was a region that had supplied raiders and conquerors who had harried and fought the empire for centuries so they were cautious. But the bishop revealed that he had learned about a cache of books from many centuries ago that were reported to be extant somewhere in the vast lands of Hest and he wanted the characters to find and recover them if possible.

Of course the paladin Van, being clergy of the church, and a paladin, agreed immediately, and the rest of the party quickly joined in, perhaps due to the promise of glory and a respectable reward.

On their way to Hest they were able to find the family that the full plate armor belonged to and returned it to much fanfare and gratitude, and they also defeated a band of river pirates. It turns out that they really don’t like pirates.

They are currently in Hest, far from home and trying to deal with peoples who do not like them and whose languages they only barely understand. In the course of this quest, they have continued to encounter the priests and followers of Sutek, adding to the growing evidence that something dark is afoot. They have also helped marry a couple of young loves who were running away from their warlike families (the druid performed the ceremony). They have fought trolls, various outsiders, undead, and more. And they have had an interesting conversation with a fairy lord.

Our last game left them at the city of Hvammr, a city founded a little over a century ago, by a warlord sorcerer, who, according to legend, disappeared a decade or two after founding the city. The city was abandoned around the time the sorcerer disappeared but is a magnet for treasure hunters.

Since entering the city they have fought more Servants of Sutek and a party of treasure hunters who were not the friendliest. And they have met a young child-like being who they believe to be the spirit of the city.

And then half of my gaming group had to go to Origins Game Fair, so I didn’t get to game this past weekend. But we should be picking up the story this weekend and I am hoping to drop some more clues about what the Servants of Sutek are up to, if we get far enough.

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!

Faith in Play #17: Narrativism

This is Faith in Play #17:  Narrativism, for April 2019.


Two months back we started seeking what might be a Christian approach to what is called Creative Agenda, by discussing gamism. Our conclusion was that gamism was not inimical to Christian faith, insofar as it encourages us to be our best and meet the challenges we face.

We did not conclude that it was “The Christian Way” to play; we did not touch on the other two identified agenda, narrativism and simulationism, at all. This month we’ll continue in the order in which they are commonly listed and look at narrativism.

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers. 1812 Henry Fuseli

People mistakenly equate narrativist play with storytelling, but the gamist group will tell of the time they rode into the mountains, trapped the dragon in its cave, and after a hard-fought battle killed it, and how is that not a story? What distinguishes narrativism is more the focus of the story. Narrativists thrive on moral and ethical issues, emotional responses, and human relationships and interactions. Did you risk your life because you were in love with the princess? Did the sorceress accompany you because she hoped to tap some of the dragon’s power for herself? Was the dragon a proven danger to the community, or was this done simply because we wanted to be famous as dragonslayers? Stories of love and betrayal, of ambition and greed, of nobility and flaws, plots which could be ripped from the pages of Shakespeare, are the heart of narrativist play. It isn’t that you risked your life but why you risked your life that forms the story.

In that sense, narrativism is about posing life questions and exploring possible answers—and in that sense we discussed this long ago in Faith and Gaming:  Answers, that role playing of this sort allows us to practice making moral, ethical, and personal decisions, in a petri dish environment that allows us to consider the consequences without suffering them. It permits us to communicate about our beliefs and explore alternatives in ways that are non-confrontational.

Anything that facilitates communication about beliefs is a worthwhile pursuit for Christians, both among ourselves and in groups with unbelievers. Narrativism thus has much to commend it as a Christian approach to play.

There are hazards, however. Just as the context of play enables us to express beliefs, it enables others to challenge those beliefs, to explore the weaknesses in what we claim. C. S. Lewis once said that at any given moment the weakest doctrine in Christianity always seemed to be the one he had just successfully defended, because at that moment it seemed that the truth of that doctrine depended entirely upon his own meager abilities to defend it, and not on God. Any time we put our beliefs in front of others, we can expect that they will be attacked, and the weaknesses uncovered. It might well seem that what you believe is not unassailable, as others bring their beliefs against it within the context of play. This, too, though, can be beneficial, as our beliefs are strengthened by our recognition that God, and not we, is the foundation for truth, and our understanding is imperfect but improving. Narrativism gives us this opportunity, if we can grasp it.

So again it appears that narrativism is also an approach to play that is not unchristian.

We’ll look at simulationism in a couple months.


Previous article:  Mourning.
Next article:  Order.

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