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“Axes and Anvils” GM book “Under the Mountain” is the Deal of the Day at DriveThruRPG today! The $15 .pdf is on sale for $6 today only.
This book has the rules for the game in the first half, and the second half is GM generators and tools. If you want rules for playing humans and elves (as well as dwarves), mass combat, GM-less play, collaborative setting development, monster randomizer and benchmarks, and more, this is the book for you. The book concludes with an analysis and summary of the GM role in the unique context of an Axes and Anvils game.
This is a great template for approaching gaming for new players–and for playing online. Moving a game online means focusing on what’s most important, and for me, that’s not crunch. While there’s certainly a place for more complex rule interactions and character builds, those things raise barriers to running games and recruiting players and engaging in the experience after a long day of doing other things. Finding different simple approaches to get straight to the best part of the game is perpetually interesting to me.
This post has a simple character sheet that is visual and adds fiction-first distinctives. I could run an adventure with nothing more than my background in fantasy gaming and these sheets in front of me.
For the dice, I have a boxed set that has dice grouped by color. You can get them here, too. https://www.schoolspecialty.com/school-specialty-polyhedra-dice-assorted-colors-264325 Don’t shame your new players because they can’t tell a d8 from a d12–tell them to roll the blue one. (If you’re playing online, it’s even simpler, they can use a dice roller in whatever program you favor.)
If you have new players, or if you’re designing for low prep online play, or if you’re recruiting people who are interested in collaborative storytelling but aren’t asking to take on a new hobby and a rule book that should be worth continuing education credits to absorb, check out this fun idea.
I have been hard at work on more NPC decks for Inkwell Ideas. Now there is a preview so you can take a look at what they’ll be like, with a number of samples. The three decks for the base project include adventurers in one, hirelings and henchmen in another, and people who live in a fantasy coastal town in a third.
We are also working on some great stretch goal decks. These decks are all great for coming up with plot ideas. One way to use them is to take 3 characters then think it over and figure out what sort of situation might connect them that generates motivation out of their needs and abilities.
I’ll use the NPC Portraits Deck, Fantasy 2 as an example. Here’s a random draw of 3 characters. Now, because I’m not trying to integrate with an existing setting, and because I think I’m amazing (and possibly cocky) I went random; I would expect normally a GM would sift through the cards and pick out ones that were most interesting or seemed to fit the current storyline (though trying out a random draw for maybe one of them is a good challenge to your creativity.)
An elf, a half-elf, and a sea elf walk into a scenario. Pretty good setup. After looking over the card art and reading the back thoughtfully, here’s what I plan to use as focal points for the plot.
- We have two big evil forces.
- First, the Breathing Cloud, a threat from under the sea, “a powerful and evil force ancient beyond reckoning” that overpowered Nulurius’ mind and is using him to unfold part of its larger scheme.
- Second, the mighty demon Sorluaek, bound in the living flesh of the Seleel family (and Liasandra is desperately trying to figure out how to destroy it before it escapes.)
- Harlowis brings the suggested setting.
- He runs the “misfit” garrison in a “run-down border settlement.”
With three flavors of elf and a border settlement, I figure it’s a coastal trade outpost where sea elves connect to the larger elven nation, bordering a human kingdom. I’ll aim for a town size, we’ll call it Surzul. It has been traded between the elves and humans through war and peace, and ended up a fairly mixed town that both countries view with distaste.
The central question to drive the plot for this setup: is the Breathing Cloud trying to free Sorluaek, or keep him bound, or are they different names for the same force (like the Breathing Cloud needs Sorluaek as the final piece to become whole)? Well, you put it like that, it’s easy; the Breathing Cloud wants to keep Sorluaek bound. That way I’ve got the good guys getting help and making friends, without knowing there’s an evil force behind the assistance, so we can string this out past the first story. Bake in those plot twists early, that’s what I say.
The description of the Breathing Cloud is deliberately vague so you can make it whatever you want it to be, but we’ll go with the implied creature–an aboleth. (Get it? Okay, go look up “aboleth” and come back. Now we’re up to speed.) The mind control effect is extended over distance and cemented in place because there’s an underwater variant of a mind flayer that’s the “court vizier” for the Breathing Cloud that learned a ritual to deepen the control and ignore distance constraints. (I just made that part up, rule of cool.)
What about Sorluaek? Well, the sahuagin are fun opponents, and in past editions were called “sea devils” and they have shark buddies; their wicked and cruel culture could totally worship a mighty demon that elves would struggle to bind. (This also gives me some stab-able foes.)
Now it’s time to actually make a gameable scenario out of it. First, the situation.
- The town of Surzul bustles with trade but isn’t in any immediate threat, so the mayor is irritated with Captain Harlowis because he’s asking for funds to better equip the town guard. Harlowis is also pushing the guards to train harder, and that’s provoking complaints, especially as there is no danger right now. This new captain isn’t working out.
- The Breathing Cloud captured scouts from the Shark Tribe of sahuagin and discovered they are massing to swarm into Surzul from the high tide and finally slay the last of the Demonguard, Liasandra Seleel, to free Sorluaek. Adding a powerful demon to the Shark Tribe would unbalance the undersea ecology, so the Breathing Cloud managed to capture Nulurius on his way to Surzul and subverted him. His mission is now to protect Seleel from the attack and bring her to the Breathing Cloud to use as leverage.
- Liasandra Seleel is the last of the Demonguard, and her whole life she has been ducking Shark Tribe assassins and agents. Her defenses have been whittled away, she has lost all her family and friends one at a time or in groups. These relentless attacks have gone on for centuries, elven generations before she was born. But now she’s discovered an important location that has the answer for how to destroy the demon for good. That location, unfortunately, is near a coast by the Shark Tribe, so her trip must be secret and fast, a giant risk. She is about to find out the Shark Tribe has located her and is going to end their master’s captivity once and for all.
Second, involving the characters. We don’t want to assume they’ll bite any particular plot hook, so I want some broad-band challenges that will pull them in, and some more specific points of alliance or antagonism to potentially motivate them. I want them to meet the three key NPCs, so they can decide how to react to them. Here are some possibilities. Some may stack.
- Seleel was attacked on the road, and the last of her defenders was slain; they bought her time to escape, and she’s grieving and angry and frightened, all alone and running low on funds; she needs to hire an escort to get to the site with the answers, and the PCs are handy. She tells them she’s in danger, needs an escort, and will pay half now and half upon arrival.
- Nulurius is being bullied in a tavern because he’s a sea elf; he is trying to find a woman, an elven wizard, but he’s jeered things look like they might escalate. However it goes, even if they don’t help, he takes some lumps but ends the encounter with bullies and continues looking for help to find this elven woman.
- Harlowis trained one or more of the characters when he worked for the baron, maybe led them in the siege. He’s called for them to join him in his new posting and help whip the garrison into shape.
- If they have a female elven wizard, a case of mistaken identity could provoke a Shark Tribe attack. Or, they could travel with some innocent merchant mistaken for Seleel by the assassins; to the sahaguin, all elves kind of look alike.
- The site with the information on how to end the curse finds out, one way or another, that the last of the Demonguard is coming, and hires or deploys the characters to help her make it to their door.
- If they have a renowned (or at least skilled) warrior/commander, the mayor heard of them and quietly invited them to come interview to take over the captain of the guard; the current guy isn’t working out.
The focus of the action for this scenario is the Shark Tribe attack on Surzul. Using one or several of the character entry points, the party arrives in Surzul. There is some local color and positioning, then at night the Shark Tribe attacks. (If they leave, they are still attacked by a Shark Tribe assault force [which is raiding all up and down the coast], and either they see the town on fire if they’re still close enough, or a messenger sent to get help informs them the town was hit and is desperately holding out for reinforcements.) If the players are determined to not interact with this setup, then yeah, have a side quest on hand for an alternative adventure. (More on that at the end.)
Regardless how they make it into Surzul, some local color will help give them interesting choices before the assault hits. Here are some examples.
- Guards griping about the new captain and his drills.
- Conflict as one guard is shaking down a local businessman as usual and another guard nervously insists the new captain doesn’t allow that.
- If they are with Nulurius, he needs a saltwater bath but isn’t willing to go to the bathhouse that caters to sea elves in town; can they help him set something up? The surf is too gross this near town.
- If they are NOT with Nulurius, some local sea elves are getting concerned that Nulurius has not showed up yet; the Sea King was supposed to send him as the new diplomat and it’s worrying how late he is. Maybe they could help find him. Why wouldn’t he check in, if he was in town? One of the diplomat staff in town knew him from before and looks forward to meeting him again, has his favorite drink, looks forward to sharing stories and catching up. (Maybe even a romantic interest, or one of his children.)
- If they are meeting Harlowis, he feasts them and they can reminisce a bit, but he’s really struggling as the permanent outsider (half elven, it’s a problem) carrying the stigma of his failure from the siege. The mayor drops in to meet the new people and isn’t very subtle about considering them as replacements for Harlowis. Harlowis might also ask them to help out in drilling the guard, showcasing their misfit nature. (Get a name list, maybe some NPC traits, to round out a few fast.)
- If there are scoundrels in the party, they may find that some of the seedy underbelly of town is packing up and getting out of the way; the Shark Tribe may have some rough sorts who are going to sabotage defenses, but others they deal with got wind of the coming attack and scoot. Maybe stroll in as they are packing.
As for the attack itself, some ideas to make it interesting.
- The Shark Tribe has a hydra, they fixed platforms on each head for riders with javelins, the back has an armored saddle fort. The hydra will wreck a dock area, pounding into the town, streaming warriors, holding the town’s attention.
- Raiding teams will head for the town gates, locking the exits.
- Elite teams of gleaming black-scaled assassins (like the ones that have hunted Seleel all her life) will scour the town in teams of six, looking for her, using magic gear and serrated bone weapons. Each team has a shaman with infernal casting powers.
- Townsfolk will withdraw into the lighthouse keep, but scoundrels working with the Shark Tribe opened up an entry point in the keep’s foundation to let in a couple assassin teams to kill all elven women–just in case the Demonguard is in disguise.
My default plan is to herd the characters into the keep ( locals know the Shark Tribe attacks sometimes, but after doing mayhem, they retreat. Taking them on is less tactical than letting them have their fun and then rebuilding.) Hit them with assassins inside, with more to come. They are sitting ducks in here if they have Seleel–she’ll be desperate to escape. If they don’t have her, or if she escapes on her own and they need to save her, be prepared to hit Harlowis with a dilemma; they want to leave a siege and counter-attack, and that resonates uncomfortably with his recent shame. (I don’t know what the PCs will do, what position they’ll be in by now, but if they’re close to him or must persuade him to let them out this is a useful conflict to have ready.)
There are lots of ways this could go. I’ve got plenty here for a 3 hour game and maybe an initial arc, generated from the interplay between some NPC cards and a background of fantasy gaming. Now that I have an establishing frame, I could add an NPC from the deck now and then to add wrinkles I would not have thought of otherwise, to help keep it fresh.
But what if they totally avoid all those plot hooks, and are determined not to get involved? That happens sometimes. That’s where having “Encounter Decks 1” at hand may help; riffling through, I picked out 3 possible low-prep frameworks I could pull in if the characters pass on what I set up for them.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this look at how you can make adventure out of NPC cards.
Here are some key principles that inform my design for running game sessions, so you can understand how I’m focusing my prep and execution of games.
- I develop and focus on elements that players express interest in exploring.
- I don’t plan a series of events for players to go through. I plan a series of crisis points based on characters encountering NPC plans–friends, foes, and neutral parties. Based on how those resolve, NPCs react. I expect to control NPCs and reactions, not players and characters. I expect players and characters to surprise me.
- I believe a good rpg provides a series of interesting choices to each player, as often as possible in the session.
- My aim is to provide a variable mix of old and new in every session; I pull from past sessions and plots, and also inject new stuff, so there’s an ongoing blend.
This playstyle takes getting used to. Players will often pull out many toys but not put any away, then get overwhelmed with the number of subplots. Also, players will often take actions that do not support their goals, then be frustrated at the outcomes. (Classic example: if you want to game to blow off stress, don’t make a character who is a faction leader, responsible for others, expected to make difficult decisions.) Also, players are not united in what they want from a game, so their characters pursue different (and often contradictory) objectives.
It is not my role as GM to tell the players what their characters can want.
I’ve lost campaigns and players to these problems. Still, I will continue to offer characters options that don’t advance their goals (even options that work against their goals) because if I only offer good choices, the choices don’t much matter.
The best way to resolve subplots is for the players to decide to address an issue, take steps to figure out how to make an outcome they like, and work together to proactively pursue solutions. If players don’t do that, consider the 3 main GM tools for resolving subplots.
- Resolve it with NPCs.
- Ignore it so it goes away.
- Allow the NPCs involved to react to their opportunities and take next steps, so I present opportunities for the PCs to interact with NPC plans.
I decide which of the 3 tools to use, all the time, applying different ones to different plot elements. Players tend to be equally happy or unhappy with each; if NPCs make their problems go away the game feels like it has no stakes, characters are passengers instead of drivers. If issues just drift away the game doesn’t feel like it has continuity. If NPCs take next steps and issues recur, the players feel like they are being punished with consequences for their actions. I accept these possible outcomes and frustrations as part of running the game, so it’s pretty familiar hearing them.
Here are the six key ingredients to success playing in my games, as I see it.
- Show up planning to have a good time, determined to do your best to enjoy it.
- Be a generous player.
- Ask questions. Pursue information. Interact with the setting.
- Figure out what you want, make a plan to pursue your goals, and take action.
- Make a character you want to play. (If you don’t want to figure out magic, don’t make a wizard.)
- Develop your character through cooperative play. Avoid fixing your character in mind then forcing that backstory and progression into the game world.
When preparing a session, I take the various threads that interest the players and I try to braid them, creating overlap as much as possible so encounters provide opportunities to fulfill multiple roles.
For example, in one game players are interested in building a mercenary company, also dealing with factions, also sparring with a powerful foe, also interacting with a new kind of energy. So, I plan. They currently work for a boss in a faction who sends them on an errand to rescue NPCs important to another faction to persuade that faction to join the mercenary company they’re building. When they drop off the rescued NPCs, the powerful foe’s agent will try to kill their contact (leader of the potential recruits) and they have to deal with their enemy and their potential allies. Along the way, a player who missed an arc catches up with news about the new energy and its consequences elsewhere, and the foe chasing him catches up and tells them of a new threat to both the characters and their energy-wielding foes (setting up the next session).
I don’t plan how each of those events will play out, but I do set up the conflicts and think about a range of possible responses (so it’s not a foregone conclusion either way.) Of course this can feel like a railroad; if the players have high initiative and I’m preventing them from doing what they want, that’s a problem. BUT, if they show up to play and expect to have something to do, I had best have something ready for them. (And if we’re playing online and I need to have pictures and play aids, that hampers my improvisation.)
Dice and decisions! In the above example, the characters didn’t stick around to see who was chasing their friend, so they avoided a space battle and didn’t encounter their foe until the end of the adventure, when he caught up and brought his warning. The assassin killed the faction leader they met with, but they killed the assassin and figured out the identity; also, much to my surprise, they ended up leading the faction that was now leaderless. I still don’t know how they’ll respond to their enemy’s news about a new threat. But I’ll plan some crisis points for the next session that lay the groundwork for wrapping up the arc. I interpret, I use my opportunities, interpret dice rolls, and follow character decisions and focus to set up next steps and longer plot lines.
How do I know what players want to do? I listen for enthusiasm, speculation, and reactions during the sessions. I also ask for their favorite things at the end of each session. Also, I coordinate between sessions; sometimes as bold a move as a poll with options as I see them, and write-in opportunities. Yeah, it’s that explicit–because it’s important. I wrap the game and the world around what they want to do.
Prep bones have improv cartilage and tendon connecting them, and they are moved by the muscle of actual play. Players often don’t know what prep I labored over and what I’m making up on the spot, and that’s as it should be. Before, during, and after play, providing documented timelines and other records to help them understand how things progress and reference past events and future plans is useful. (The GM works harder than the players, that’s the job.) Prep is what you do to make sure you’ve got something to do in case the players don’t have other ideas, and when they take a hard left you go with them rather than dragging them back to how you thought it would go. That’s the job too.
The core book for Axes and Anvils is part of a charity bundle to help with the Australian fires. I am glad I can offer something to help with the relief efforts.
You can see the bundle here.
Valdis, Annonciade, Søren and his henchman Kurzol, Kestrel, and Calendel were settled for the night in the barracks under a watch tower on the road to the Fallows Overlook, accompanied by their spellbound victim Banks, a novice of the Order of Plenty.
Valdis quietly approached Annonciade in the night, explaining that she had a possible plan for contacts in the Fallows Overlook–but if she approached with a group, even entering town in that way, she might spook them. She did not want to explain who her contacts might be; apparently it was a sensitive matter. She struck out on her own, getting a head start.
Kestrel woke, groggy, and the adventurers explained what happened. He got some rest to recover, and as he dreamed, he was in a grayscale underwater kind of murk; he saw the woman from his previous dream, dazed or unconscious, tied to the ground but floating. She saw him, and there was fear in her eyes; she began to struggle, and he was at the center of lighting. Looking down, he saw he gripped lightning in his fist–and he woke.
Onward to the Fallows Overlook
Banks robbed the tower kitchen for supplies, unseen. The adventurers headed out on the road, rather than going on the cablecar system suspended above the ground, easing transport of goods and people between the Outlook and the port.
On the road they met a band of suspicious dwarves, and they saw pilgrims. They met Tymm the fey-touched wizard; he had one horn, hooves, a pot belly, he was scrawny. He used a spell to get woodland creatures to build him a hut for the night, and he was full of stories of the fey court and his dalliance with them. Apparently he lost a bet and had to take the court’s tribute to Fallows Overlook, then he’d shed some of the fey markings they inflicted on him as part of the deal (he lost a bet.) He went on about the underwater court and beauty of the neriads, and he had fairies in pouches, he made them arm wrestle as night time entertainment. Calendel and Soren shared his magical hut for the night.
They passed the Granary, a major watch tower, and closed in on the Fallows Overlook a day later. After paying a leg tax of 1 gold per leg, they got into the city and checked in to the Storehouse, a massive circular building with five stories and a central shaft, where visitors were encouraged to secure lodging.
The city bustled, unusually busy; asking around, they discovered the military arm of the temple was mobilizing and sending 1,500 warriors to the port of Fardellan, a port under attack by the Blood Kings. The High Clerist himself was going, and he would conduct a service at 10:00 the following morning before the military loaded up and headed out.
After settling their gear, they checked with Banks to find out where the library was, so they could get some background. (They knew some about the Fallows Overlook, but wanted better information.) At the library, they negotiated with the staff to gain a pass; since the library was open noon to midnight, and it was about dusk, they traded a sack of Calendel’s Mekk-infused crystals from the stone god for six hours of research. They passed the balcony overlooking the library floor, taking the stairs down, and they were met by helpful ghosts prepared to locate information for them to review.
Annonciade focused on the lore of the compound and its history. Soren focused on the lore of the founding of the Order of Plenty.
It was generally known the Fallows Overlook was a massive temple, with an administrative center compound attached, built over a forge and a prison, over a mine. According to her research, Annonciade discovered the site was originally called The Full Moon, a mountain of power. Animistic shapeshifters ran the site, with an underwater convention center kind of hospitality complex off the coast, the Estuary Court.
The Tyrok Clan of dwarves drove the Estuary Court back, and established a mine in the Full Moon mountain, because the massive tree at its peak (the Seashadow) was somehow infused with orichalcum. Orichalcum is a magical metal that is conducive to transmitting thought or motive energy, so it is used extensively in prosthesis and constructs.
The dwarves could not control the powers they sought. In desperation, they turned to the Saints for assistance, and Saint Garisand, Patron of the Harvest, came to their rescue. He led his followers in mighty deeds and they saved the dwarves, who were so grateful they gifted the forge they had set up in the mines that followed the roots of the Seashadow tree to the Saint. Then the dwarves took their rich treasures and departed.
While an attempt was made to put a temple within the Seashadow, there were complications. The whole tree was torn from the mountain and destroyed, and the temple built on the site. All that remained of the tree was a mighty staff, the Scepter of the Root and the Branch.
The King of the Estuary Court was a shapeshifter, and he was the Avatar of Lunestra’s lover. When the Estuary Court attempted to retake the mountain, Saint Garisand defeated them and captured their king, binding him by oath and power. The King of the Estuary Court was then used as bait, luring the avatar into a lethal trap, and she was destroyed.
It seemed clear to the researchers that the Golden Spike that the shifterflesh captive under the Ice Cage requested was the Scepter of the Root and the Branch, foundation of the oaths that sealed him away. Annonciade recognized the Scepter, the Golden Spike, as a cypher object that was used to adjust the flavor and frequency of energy so it could be compatible with a different power set. The Scepter was likely the key that allowed the energy of the echo of the Seashadow tree that suffused this site to be repurposed to the Channel that the Templar enchantments used to power modern clerics.
Kestrel strolled around the library floor taking a look around; Calendel’s body remained at the Storehouse, and his consciousness rode with Illas in Kestrel’s shadow. The library was thick, protected with energy somehow, and traveling independently of someone’s shadow would be difficult in the dimensional space.
They saw a lich with floating skull servitors and a half-corporeal balehound doing research. One area was custom built for dwarves, with short sturdy furniture. They also found a garden with pools, right there in the library, with the water-touched people (corrupted by the element of water and gifted with some control over it) spending time among the books. The library had ghosts, yes, and they were protected from the unbalancing energy surges of time by the strange energy field. There were also death knights in the background, waiting to be summoned; very few living guards were needed for this trove of priceless knowledge.
A Bold Intrusion
They left at midnight. Kestrel was inspired, and used his skill in costuming and design (as well as group treasure) to acquire some higher quality clothing so they could pretend to be pilgrims, and get into the temple to see the High Clerist treasure and locate the Scepter.
That night, the rage that Annonciade simmered in provided a connection through the First Sign. She burned with the Sign of Breaking, and knew what must be done to disconnect the Scepter from the Conduit.
Calendel researched in his book of etiquette, and discovered secret passwords that would indicate they were high-level (discreet) pilgrims accorded special privileges for visiting the Saints’ temples.
In the morning, they bought a mule and loaded up most of their gear and supplies (including Calendel’s bat), tasking Kurzol and Banks with taking them out of the city. The adventurers would catch up–probably at a sprinting pace.
The adventurers timed their arrival at the temple to be right before the High Clerist was supposed to address the people on the mountainside before loading the army onto ships in the narrow sea access at the base of the mountain. When they arrived, the guards informed them the temple was closed. They used the passwords, and were grudgingly allowed in, assigned a guide who had taken a vow of silence. Calendel relentlessly pestered her with questions as they headed in to the Temple space, past the various guards. They had thirty minutes in the chamber.
The High Clerist Throne Room
They were left alone to worship; no living guards accompanied them, but there were many ranks of alcoves with big basalt statues, and joists in the dome overhead were studded with skulls, each one haunted. The dome was shaped, shaded, and decorated to resemble the dappling of tree cover, and strategic skylights let in shafts of sunlight. A balcony with no floor access extended out in a sweep, with the Throne of the High Clerist in the center of the vast space.
Calendel jumped into Illas and let Kestrel and Soren drag his body to the circle of contemplation to pray. Annonciade used her stealth abilities with Illas and Calendel in her shadow, magically climbing the wall and taking her time to circle around to the back of the chamber. They passed the designated seating and magical items and weapons stored behind the throne, approaching the throne itself. Calendel sensed its secrets, and recoiled.
The throne was coppery, shaped into a likeness of Death with crossed scythes seated, the High Clerist in its lap. What Calendel realized was the throne was an ossified fragment of the King of Estuary Court, still dimly aware and suffering, frozen into this shape and connected to the mass under the Ice Cage. Furthermore, there was a secret compartment in the back, with catches to open it that matched where the Saint had gripped him and inflicted this cursed form upon him. Opening the back would reveal the Scepter of the Root and the Branch, and also–a chest that contained the gems ritualistically formed by tearing the life from the godslaves of an obliterated avatar.
Grim, Annonciade opened the compartment, and she knew that there would be a cost to inflicting the Sign of Breaking on this connection. Gritting her teeth, she accepted the cost, and broke the bond. Tearing the staff out of the throne, she triggered the various supernatural defenses of the throne room.
Racing for the edge of the balcony, she hooked the rope under her sash, and twirled over the edge. As she sailed down, Soren slid his staff away, pulling out the sleeve to cover the Scepter, so he entered with a staff and left with one without drawing comment. Calendel snapped back into his body, and the adventurers ran out the doors, chattering about a miracle, demanding that the guards bow down and acknowledge its majesty; they managed the deception, somewhat convincing as the whole chamber reverberated like a rung bell and the statues were stirring, ghosts stirring in the aether.
Ducking out of immediate sight, they broke out to the exterior of the temple. Calendel and Kestrel could run along ridiculously narrow ledges, Annonciade had spider climbing magic, and Soren trusted to their good will and ropes connecting him to the others. They scaled the side of the building as the defenses roused, making good their escape.
Valdis, Annonciade, Søren and his henchman Kurzol, Kestrel, and Calendel (along with their bewitched novice Banks) were camped, when Valdis woke up to stand watch and discovered Kestrel was gone and they were mired in fog. Looking around for Kestrel, Valdis spotted some fast-moving bugs the size of a marble; catching one, she held it up for inspection and it chewed its way free; she dropped it in a bag and whacked it on a rock, stunning it and cracking its carapace.
She roused the others to take a look, and they looked it up in Annonciade’s book of power, revealing it was the result of a necromatic ritual where a slab of obsidian was cursed, then smashed, as part of a ritual; the gravel of shards animate to become obsidian beetles that dig into a victim and allow the necromancer with the attuned headgear to control the victim at a distance.
Scouting the area with Swiftfell, his elven horned owl familiar, Soren reported that there were lights over the ridge. The necromancer and entourage were retreating, with Kestrel as their prize.
Giving chase, they were gaining on the necromancer when they crested a ridge and were assaulted by a rearguard of armored corpses. The adventurers tore through them in short order, continuing their pursuit, but the retreating warband escaped into a heavily warded tunnel into the mountain.
Into the Mountain
Examining the traps, Annonciade and Soren determined the statue may animate or shoot out a magical assault or curse or something; the way around it was to heft up some of the corpses and walk behind them, masked by their fading energies.
While they collected the corpses they defeated in the ambush, Calendel attempted to shadowjump around the defenses. In the shadow, he was confronted by a dark mirror image of himself–and his shadow had his peerless reflexes, shooting him in the face. While he was knocked down, his shadow Illas took over and pulled his body out so he could heal; the arrow was more a magical attack than physical, and he managed to recover as the others returned with corpse covers.
They continued past the traps, getting into the tunnel and following the funereal walk deeper in. This was apparently a place dedicated to Nuzagoth where corpses were prepared and laid to rest. Wall murals depicted the shrouded reaper waiting for all, the successful and failures, sick and healthy, violent and meek.
They came to the end of the tunnel, shaped like birth canal to the afterlife, passing through the portal into a different state of being. It was trapped to crush any who attempted to pass. As Annonciade and Soren studied the trap, Calendel realized it was a trapdoor in the ceiling, and the door that appeared to lead out was a fake and a trigger.
They failed to open the ceiling trapdoor by modifying Soren’s staff head with wire to conform to the necromancer’s staff head and tugging the concealed trigger. The trap activated. Annonciade used her spider climb bracelet to get up to the ceiling and yank on the trigger until it worked, and the adventurers narrowly escaped.
The necromancer fled with Kestrel as his bodyguard, and the adventurers were confronted by the last of his armored henchmen. Calendel shadowjumped ahead to confront the necromancer, ending up between the necromancer and a corridor full of alcoves with armored figures. He had to deal with Kestrel, who was bodyguard to the necromancer.
As the adventurers fought for their lives, Annonciade caught up to the necromancer and flanked him, so Kestrel could not protect from both the front and the back. Calendel slew the necromancer, disrupting the control, and Kestrel collapsed.
Rather than risk going deeper into the mountain, the adventurers concluded they had the treasure they sought; Kestrel, recovered. They withdrew, Valdis carrying the unconscious fighter.
The Road to the Fallows Overlook
Banks told them the tower on the road ahead would have a minimal crew, since other tests were going on in the Undercellar where novices were facing undead in real combat. He knew a back way in; the Death Maze, a boxy little compound behind the tower where some animated remains were kept, so initiates could be tested and exposed to undead with minimal risk. When not in use, it was quiet, and they could slip through and stay in a mothballed barracks.
Soren reinforced the bewitching friendship spell as the cognitive dissonance of chatting with those who killed his friends threatened the magical hold, as Banks realized he would have to explain what happened to his superiors. Once gain in the grip of Soren’s spell, Banks regained his forced perspective, and the adventurers continued to the tower. They had no difficulty slipping in past the lazy remains and setting up for a night in the barracks.
Pride (and face) wounded by his mirror self, Calendel processed those feelings as he split out a new shadow, Buddy. Buddy was very supportive, consoling him that he was in fact awesome and his mirror self was a jerk, nothing like the original; Calendel felt great satisfaction in knowing that his new shadow friend was going to work out great.
For the clan! I love this game’s focus on blending player and GM creativity as the players collaborate on their clan as the focus for an open table game. The years of feeling the responsibility of finishing this game have paid off now that it is published.
You can find more promotional material for the game on the Axes and Anvils blog here.
Valdis, Annonciade, Søren and his henchman Kurzol, Kestrel, and Calendel shivered in the darkness illuminated only by light-enchanted arrowheads, in the company of disoriented and confused body doubles for Tolfree and Jannara. Soren communed with his owl to try and get a sense of whether these specters were even real; indeed, they were flesh and blood humans. But they were unscarred and unbent by time or habit, new somehow. Sloppy overlapping glyph burns were invisible to the eye, but deeply marked the fugitives.
The adventurers convinced their fugitive guides to take them to “the pit” that repelled them. Reluctantly, they traveled through the darkness until they reached a shaft down into the earth, surrounded by a balcony that sloped down towards it, with a pulpit on a protrusion to stand over the darkness. The walls seemed to be shaped by rapid ritual work, as the tunnels had been. Glyphs glowed with a violet light that hurt the head, curling down the sides of the shaft in a double-helix pattern. Some corrosive force rendered the walls flaky and filled the air with a haze of dust that was probably toxic.
Dropping a glowing arrow down the shaft, they determined it was about 50 feet deep–and they had just enough rope to manage the descent. Kestrel also heard the doubles make an offhand comment that at least the screaming stopped for now.
Annonciade used her magical bracelet to spider climb down the walls, careful not to slip on the loose stone of the shaft walls. Kestrel climbed down the rope. The others remained on their guard above. The Tolfree and Jannara doubles suffered from some random bleeding from the eyes and nose, dazed and in pain so close to the shaft.
The low-ceiling cavern at the bottom of the shaft was filled with a mound of dust, and drifts of dust and ash. Calling out to see if the shifter was present, Annonciade saw the dust move as though something was beneath it. A general path was indicated, and she led Kestrel along it until they reached a break in the wall of the cavern leading to a lower area where pillars of shaped stone rose out of black water. The invisible and shapeless guide seemed to slosh an indication of a path in the water. Reluctantly, the two adventurers followed into the knee-deep liquid, wading into the unknown.
Ambush of Bones
At the top of the shaft, the adventurers stood watch. They heard something skittering in the darkness from several entrances, so they were ready with a rolling wave of bones formed into a horrific mass rushed them. Calendel leaped down the rope with Soren at his heels while their guides ran screaming. Valdis and Kurzol withstood the rush of bone, and Valdis managed to batter it apart enough to crush its meaty center with the Rod of the Crescent Moon. Valdis and Kurzol headed down the rope with the others before they attracted more site guardians. Once they reached the bottom, they followed the tracks of the rest of the party.
Annonciade and Kestrel reached a gummy wall with many fist-sized holes where something forced its way through a weak spot. A mass of flesh-like material pushed through to form a torso-sized face modeled loosely on Annonciade’s features, but it could not manage to speak. It beckoned, and Annonciade approached and touched it, pulled into contact with its mind.
The shapelessness extended past the flesh into the mind, so Annonciade spoke to a flawed mirror. The thing explained it was the part that could still reason, so if it was talking to her they should hurry, as the other part was “unsupervised.”
Apparently the shifter had forced a passage connecting to the ocean. It could not escape, but it could draw in water and power from the ocean so it swelled and pressed hard at the bars of its cage. Speaking quickly, it asked Annonciade to find the “golden spike” that the Templar had, for if the shifter got that it could free itself.
The cavern started screaming. Mouths formed on the stone, and some substance roiled the water as it moved. Kestrel was debating what to do when Annonciade was released from the communion; they decided to retreat. However, without the guiding ripples, the way out was not clear in the shallow black water. They plunged on, feeling increasingly desperate.
Meanwhile the other adventurers ventured into the black water, calling for their allies, their shouts drowned out by the screaming walls. Soren bolstered the magical light, and it caught the eye of the others, who sloshed towards them.
As the stone formed reaching hands and screaming faces that pressed out (sometimes melding into the stone columns) a fleshy mass rushed them. Soren’s magic tore it down, spraying them with the horrible interior fluids and gobbets of shifterflesh. Retreating as quickly as they could, they reached the chamber of ashes and dust.
The powdery stuff was forming into the suggestion of helms and shields and armor. Weapons made of bones raised through the drifts. Templar shapes were forming to stand against the incoming walls of flesh; a shapeless defense taking form to contain a shapeless prisoner taking form to escape.
As the adventurers climbed out of the shaft and fled, they realized that an inexorable wall of shifterflesh would build below, drawing on the full-moon energy of the ocean. It pushed out of its prison, extruding through the powdery defense chamber, pressing up past the glyph prison of the shaft, through the maze, to the Moon Gate. And whatever could make it past that was separated from the source, dazed, burned, harried, and tortured. The shapes the flesh took on were echoes of the dead Templar who were likely interred in the dust trap chamber, the shape sealed in place by the prison glyphs in the shaft. Their minds were disconnected and wiped by the trauma.
The forms for the escapees included Tolfree, Gennara, and Chet, as well as one other they did not recognize. As the adventurers ran, they passed a slick of blood and slicing sounds in the shadows; the fugitives had likely been caught by bone guardians, their skeletons harvested for limbs. The adventurers did not investigate.
Through the Moon Gate, they finally felt they could catch their breath.
Weary and distressed, the adventurers discussed their next move. The afternoon was waning, and tonight would be the final night of the full moon. The agitation and high tide would likely combine to send a rush of shifterflesh through the defenses, so snipers would likely occupy the perch the adventurers found on the way in. They resolved to ambush the snipers to find out more.
They followed the path to the sniper ledge, intending to set up an ambush. They were not yet in position when the snipers strolled along the path; moving fast, the adventurers got out of sight, except for the owl. One of the snipers spotted the owl, so the surprise was not complete as the adventurers pounced.
Five of the six snipers were downed in seconds, the survivor pinned down so he could not flee before Soren cast a spell on him to adjust his perspective to friendship. Soren led him away to answer some questions as the fighters undertook the vicious work of making sure the fallen were dead, stripping their corpses, and tossing them off the cliff.
The adventurers were dismayed to find that the survivor was only 16. Of the slain, only one appeared to be older than a teen, and he was in his twenties. The sniper explained to Soren that the Order of Plenty tithed orphan and refugee children, raising them in their clerical tradition to battle the dead. The sniper and his cohort had won contests and competitions, they were bright and promising, and they had been sent on this detail as a test. They had to demonstrate the strength and resolve to kill people.
Feeling disgust, pity, and rage in various degrees, the adventurers waited in the sniper perch with their new friend. He sang hymns to pass the time and strengthen his resolve.
A Rush of Flesh
Around midnight, when the moon was at its peak, the vague screams and thuds from beyond the Moon Gate resolved to a couple dozen escapees staggering into the night sobbing and hysterical. The sniper mastered himself enough to shoot some of them, retching afterwards. The adventurers also fired into the mass, dropping the blood-slicked shifterforms with the cleric bows.
Towards the end of the long night, Calendel approached one and pulled the arrow out, allowing the prisoner to escape. It was one templated off of a form that the adventurers did not recognize.
Return to the Tower
After a rough night, they slept, then had a modest breakfast with their sniper friend. He was to return to the tower when the rush was complete. They decided to go with him. There were a series of towers on a road that eventually led back to the Fallows Overlook. The first tower was likely to have only a skeleton crew. Also, there was a sally port they could use to enter unobserved if they wished.
Simmering with anger at the various secrets and practices of the Order of Plenty and their Templar progenitors, the adventurers accompanied their bewitched dupe towards the church soldiers entrusted with guarding the Ice Cage.