Tag Archives: roleplaying

The Angel of Beauty

The temple is quiet around Muse. The air is still, the lingering scent of incense a pleasant counterpoint to the smell of fire, heat and blood she had run through to get here. The infernal forces arrayed in the plaza outside are falling silent and she knows their time is running short.

Sweat beads under the collar of her armour, glamoured as ever to resemble a mockery of the court finery she should have been wearing. Her mother’s betrayal is long forgotten, but it serves as a reminder of what can be, if she but wills it. There is nothing she cannot do given time.

She glances sideways, taking in the exhaustion and worry on her companions faces.

Reed is looking around, his bright eyes shining and his smile wide, despite the lines of fatigue on his face and the flickering embers of his magic. She can barely feel his presence in the Weave, the odd chaotic spark a mild clash of cymbals.

‘er Ladyship and Chef, both warriors of great skill and neither particularly interested in the magical arts, look fresher, but not by much. ‘er Ladyship’s limbs are trembling slightly and she suspects the constant rage of battle has taken a much greater toll than the statuesque woman is letting on. Chef, her white hair spotted with infernal ichor, meets her eyes and nods briefly.

Myca, eyes wide with worry, smiles shyly as their gaze meets. The constant worry has taken its toll even on her and Muse feels her jaw clench. He had better not be playing them false.

Movement by the doors catches their attention and the two martial members of their little band disappear down the stairs, Chef to guard their backs and ‘er Ladyship to confront the Servant and rescue her child. Muse smiles grimly, one of her canines drawing a bead of blood from the inside of her cheek. She had kept herself out of all the fighting so far as best she could to preserve her limited magic for this moment. She had sworn an oath ‘er Ladyship, and she would do everything she could to rescue the child, but if it came down to her word versus Myca’s safety, the child would die.

The wood of her longbow, its dark grain as familiar to her now as the pommels of her daggers, is comforting under her fingers as she moves towards the doors, getting out of any obvious line of sight. The string is taut and well-waxed. She knows, if anything is going to go wrong, it will be her fault. Not for the first time does she wish she had some form of magical bow, anything which could injure the fiends laying waste to the city.

She shrugs out of her backpack, laying it carefully on the ground next to her bags of holding as the doors shudder and start to swing open. She closes her eyes, drawing a handful of shafts from their quiver and laying them next to her. One good, clean shot. That’s all she’ll need to end this. One innocent life ended, and the threat of the demon would be gone. For now.

She hears the footsteps in the nave and creeps to the edge of the mezzanine, watching as Nicodemus, that same irritating smirk on his features, leads a handful of devils to the altar where she now sees ‘er Ladyship sitting.

Already the air is filling with power, a heat perceptible to her senses, and she carefully knocks an arrow to her bowstring. Below, Nicodemus and ‘er Ladyship share some words, the bundle in his arms the wrong shape and size to be a child.

He hadn’t played them false. Good. She respected few people in this world and his self-sacrifice, however self-serving, had been worthy of her respect. She turned her attention to the devils with him, content to let the situation play out and wait for an opportunity.

Her ears caught fragments of the conversation as ‘er Ladyship rushed Nicodemus, the crimson tiefling’s guards restraining her easily. It seemed to be more of his trademark confidence and her flowing anger. The human woman was a terrifying warrior, but her anger was too quick, too unfocused. Muse knows it will cause them problems in the long run.

She frowns as the ritual begins and Nicodemus starts calling upon Belphagor. Her eyes dart down the mezzanine, Reed is hiding behind a plant and Myca is lost in a ritual. Thoughts rush through her head.

Nicodemus can be trusted to serve his own interests first, and those of his Mistress second. She disapproved of the warlock/patron relationship, having grown up with a similar one, but it is predictable, easily understood.

Myca will do everything she can to prevent the demon’s arrival, but Muse isn’t sure how effective her hallowing of already consecrated ground will be.

Reed… Reed will no doubt do something creative to simultaneously better and worsen the situation as he always does.

Chef’s cool head is elsewhere, keeping them safe from ambush.

Leaving ‘er Ladyship to follow along with whatever plan Nicodemus has. No.

It’s too risky. SHE has to do something.

Her tail lashes the air as she thinks, heartbeats turning into frozen seconds as a plan forms in her mind.

She glances over at Myca.

She thinks about the first time she had performed, the first smile on Myca’s face, that night of passion, heat and blood in the public baths. Each and every memory is full of a numinous connection to a world of infinite horizons, a world so much greater than one person.

She pulls on those connections, throwing them out into the Weave, into the uncaring cosmos.

‘Jophiel.’ She says quietly. ‘You don’t know me but Belphagor is coming. He will be here. He will be manifest. He must be stopped.’

There is a moment of silence as the universe waits for a response.

‘What will you sacrifice for this?’ The angel’s voice is a chorus in her head, the purest notes she has ever heard.

Without thinking about it, certainty filling her every thought as usual, she replies.

‘Myself.’

The pain is immediate, bands of fire wrapped around her heart, but it is short-lived. She collapses to the floor, her bow falling from suddenly nerveless fingers.

She expects to fall into the fire and smoke of the Nine Hells, but the Angel of Beauty has a gift for her. He gifts her happiness and she finds herself in a sun-lit wood, Myca singing songs as she dances in a clearing.

She smiles, her mind clear of its habitual scheming, and strides forward into paradise.

Years pass and the wood remains safe and unchanging. Perfect day follows perfect day.

And then the sky darkens. A pain, familiar and long forgotten, washes through her heart. She feels the ground beneath her feet writhe and pulse with the power of the wild places. Myca starts crying and stumbles towards her, pounding Muse’s back with her fists and they cling to each other.

‘I love you.’ She says between tears, repeating it like a mantra.

Understanding floods Muse’s mind. For her, the fight isn’t over. This is not where she belongs, angel be damned. There is a world which needs her.

She reaches down, letting the power of the earth fill her being.

Reality reasserts itself.

She hears the sounds of the temple, she feels Myca’s tears on her cheek, she feels the force of the angel as he hovers there, watching the ritual.

There will be consequences for what she has done.

But there is a half-elf who needs her.

The World and its People – The Sapphire Grove

Although many oases exist within the Ozark Desert, few are as well visited as the Sapphire Grove. It is named not for the clear, deep pool which provides a seemingly limitless supply of valuable water, but instead for the brilliant blue flowers which bloom among the trees. It is said that the flowers form a trail which can be followed under the light of a full moon to a long-lost temple of some forgotten sun god, but few who try to follow the flowers seldom return.

Although it is situated far from the major trade-routes, the Sapphire Grove has a reasonably large, semi-permanent population. Even though many of the desert-folk here return to their homes with great frequency, there is a large enough contingent of merchants, travellers and explorers from other regions of the world that a small city has grown over the centuries, catering to many different types of cuisine and religious cultures.

Outside of the desert-folk holds, the Sapphire Grove is believed to be the best place in Omnis to find high-quality artisanal goods; whether it be carved wood from the Starspire Forest (well over a month’s travel away) or illuminated manuscripts from Shearmouth at the other end of the continent, it can likely be found in the Grove. Rumours persist of a merchant tucked away in the wide, wind-swept streets who will sell whatever you are looking for at that exact moment or a botanist who has managed to cultivate a potion from the blue flowers which will render you as transparent as moonlight.

Of course, such a cosmopolitan haven attracts an underbelly and the local thieves, known to all as the Blue Thorns, make themselves known regularly by raiding merchant caravans (although they would never sell goods back to the merchant from which they were stolen, and many merchants in possession of such things will happily return them to their original owner) and smuggling contraband in and out of the trade-city. Whilst technically illegal under the town’s laws, it is rare to find the merchant who is not willing to sell goods procured from the Thorns, hence the local custom of pricking ones fingers on the thorns of the local flora to ensure your caravan is not attacked as it leaves the Grove. It has become tradition among travelling merchants to prepare excess goods to surrender as a tithe to the Thorns.

Due to the peculiar relationship between thieves and merchants (where each group respects the other) and in particular because of the Grove’s position in a secluded part of the Ozark Desert, there is little need for a standing judicial body. It is commonly accepted that the Thorns police the streets and punish their own, or outsiders, when the law is broken in so egregious a manner as to be to the detriment of the city. For the most part this system works, but there are those who arrive in the city eager to bring law to this uniquely structured place.

Whilst most efforts to this end fail, there has been some progress made recently in stoking the fires of resentment as refugees from Nyanis across the Widow’s Sea seeking work have joined many merchant caravans as guards or hangers-on. It is becoming more and more common to see groups of a shared cultural background residing close to each other as demagogues drawn from all corners of Omnis seek to impose their vision of society on what they perceive as the perfect melting-pot to form a small desert-state of their own.

People

Leo Camarr is the leader of the Blue Thorns. A man of average appearance, his mind is his greatest asset and he has long kept the peace in the Sapphire Grove. Although his willingness to join with the raids conducted on his command has waned of late, he is well-loved by his people and respected by the few merchants who know his true position within the city for his sense of fairness.

Loran ‘Firetongue’ Bramblejump is a demagogue who recently entered the city and has already made great strides in her quest for power. Reacting to the perceived slights of the taller races, Loran has consolidated her powerbase among the small-folk and has been pushing for a formal division of the city between the so-called Skywatchers (with their heads lost in the clouds) and the hard-working people of the ground.

Braelor Sandhammer is the permanent emissary from Mordain’s Vigil. A typical member of the desert-folk, he uses his years of wisdom to settle trade disputes and it is the rare merchant who doesn’t know Braelor on sight. What few know is that he feeds reports on the city’s political state to his king in Mordain’s Vigil and is waiting for the right moment to begin the long process of destabilising the Grove and removing the Blue Thorns from the desert.

Syndrios Lunalim came from the Starspire Forest centuries ago to study the blue flowers of the Sapphire Grove and never left. Their botanical knowledge has helped many travellers on their journey through the Grove and they are always happy to offer advice when it is asked for. Word on the street is that they have managed to follow the flower road and returned, but they will not talk about this when pressed.

She Who Shines came from the Drowned Lands of the Shifting Sea and settled on the outskirts of the Sapphire Grove. A hunter by profession and a scholar by nature, she sees it as her job to catalogue all the fauna she can find in the sands around the Grove and study them for the betterment of all who live there.

Plothooks

There is dissension among the Blue Thorns and Leo Camarr is looking for external agents to root out the troublemakers.

Loran Bramblejump was attacked on the street recently and is looking for bodyguards to attend a meeting with other powerful members of the Grove’s community with her. She will work with Skywatchers but prefers people of a similar size to herself.

Braelor has gone missing and several of the merchants who know him are concerned. They are offering a sizeable reward to anyone who can find him.

Syndrios has been seen sleepwalking recently, their clothes in disarray and odd injuries covering their body. Concerned parties will pay for any information about what the botanist gets up to whilst asleep.

She Who Shines wants adventurers to help her explore a ruin recently unearthed by the shifting sands as she believes a rare breed of sandcat to live within its depths.

 

Golden Hope

They waited in the darkness of the abandoned house, holding hands as they stared out of their little pool of light at the dusty walls of the secret room. Far below them, they heard the sounds of their strange visitors as they made their way from the mansion, the solid metal clanking of the big half-orc’s armour almost drowned out the incessant chatter of the gnome’s incomprehensible words.

“I don’t want to go back down there.” Sigra said, her eyes wide, and her hand cold in Lothar’s grasp. “It’s not a good place.” He smiled reassuringly at her, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her scarred ear.

“I’ll go and check it out. If they’re telling the truth…” His voice drifted off as the possibilities of what that much money could get them filled his mind.

They were a long way from the muddy hovel they’d been living in in the Sprawl and they had thought that here, squatting in this abandoned manor, their luck had been changing. They’d been here for a few weeks now, scavenging food from the magically restocking cellar, washing their clothes in the stream running through the woods behind the house. To think that they’d spent that first night so close to a small fortune was even more of an indication.

For people like them, clearly descendants of elves from the north who had lain with humans, life was hard. The Sprawl was a dirty, poor place where half-breeds were shunned as signs of ill omen, harbingers of disaster. No-one knew why, but everyone knew to cross the street when they saw a half-elf, or to look the other way when nearing a half-orc. It was why they’d shaved their ears, cutting the points from them, and grown out their lice-ridden hair to cover the tell-tale scars. They were fortunate and favoured their human ancestry, and their quality of life had improved after the wounds had healed, but they still hadn’t felt like they belonged. With this money, if it existed, they could find somewhere they did belong, even if it was just a small house on the Bank.

“Please be safe.” She whispered, meeting his eyes. He nodded and smiled again.

“Of course.” He squeezed her hand, “I’m just going downstairs.” He leaned forwards and kissed her gently. “Wait here, my love.” She smiled slightly and drew the blanket on their bed around her narrow shoulders.

“I’ll always wait for you.” He rested a hand briefly on her cheek, his thumb rubbing the scar from where she had been attacked by a mob of drunken louts a few years previously. She closed her eyes and leaned into the gesture.

“I’ll be back soon.” He stood, his knees stiff from the cool loft air, and picked his jacket up from the chair it had been resting on. His lungs, scarred from the smoke he’d inhaled as a child when his parents’ house burned down, pulled tight in the cold winter air as he opened the secret door and stepped out in the dusty loft space of the mansion.

Towers of boxes and piles of fabrics filled the space, a dim illumination coming from a series of circular windows set into the eaves gave him enough light to see easily by. He followed their well-worn path through the assorted mass of forgotten possessions and lost memories, his feet carrying him unconsciously towards the stairs leading down to the servants’ quarters.

The book shelves in the common area showed signs of being searched, the few remaining volumes laying on their sides where they had fallen after being disturbed. He paused, straining to hear anything in the house, his eyes drifting over the rest of the scene. Chairs waited patiently under tables only now being covered by a thin layer of dust, and a small collection of well-used games waited in one corner next to a small box with a label he couldn’t read.

When he heard nothing, he headed downstairs, his feet echoing slightly on the worn stone steps at the back of the house. The kitchen was as it always was, save for a small pile of leaves next to the slightly open door. He frowned at them. They looked like the leaves from the maze at the back of the house and he glanced out a nearby window. A large hole had been forced through the outer wall of the maze and twigs dotted the lawn in a line leading to the kitchen door.

He shook his head, focussing on the task at hand. He descended once more, past the cupboards which magically filled with food every morning and into the cool darkness of the cellar proper. The stone slabs under the worn soles of his shoes sent a chill into his feet as he walked to the shelves he knew lead into the secret rooms under the house. He reached out a trembling hand and pushed the right bottle, watching as the door opened into a small stone-walled room bare of any decoration.

He crossed to the other wall, his stomach churning and pressed the stone he’d been told about by the cat-person. There was a muted click and a section of the wall swung outwards. He glanced at the floor where they’d spent their first night in the house, and then stepped through.

Runes hovered below the surface of the stone, glowing with a pure golden light. He pressed a seemingly random panel in the wall opposite, still following the cat-person’s instructions, and pushed against the wall next to it.

The room beyond this secret door was made of the same dressed stone as everywhere else, but the stones were blackened and scorched in places, as if struck by lightning. His eyes were caught by the two large chests at the far end of the room, past the empty stand surrounded by scorch marks and carved with runes in a strangely elegant script. Holding his breath, he approached the two finely carved boxes.

The clasps were cool to the touch as he threw them both open, his eyes drinking in the golden coins within. For the first time in a while, he had a hope that they could make the future they wanted, that their life could be theirs for the owning.

Now, all they had to do was figure out a way to carry that much money out.

Role-playing 304 – Social Anxiety and You, A GM’s Tale

Role-playing, as a hobby, attracts a wide variety of people, from the self-assured, spotlight comfortable extrovert to the retiring introvert, and everyone in between. I’m one of those in between; whilst painfully shy, I love to perform and entertain, to provide the inspiration for my players to make a great story. Whilst I like playing, I love sitting (or, more accurately, standing whenever I feel up to it) in the GM’s chair in spite of the social anxiety which plagues most of my social life.

So, inspired by a regular member of my chat over at my Twitch channel, I decided to sit down and elaborate on how I deal with that aspect of my mental landscape and leverage it as best I can. My standard disclaimer about subjectivity applies here, what works for me, might not work for you and you should do your best to bear that in mind, but here goes.

First things first, make sure everyone is on the same page so there is no misunderstanding. I tend to speak quickly and/or quietly to cover my insecurity and I REALLY struggle to make eye-contact when I’m addressing someone, which can be off-putting/insulting to some people. Whenever I run an event at my local board-game café, I always lead by telling my players that I won’t be offended if they ask me to repeat myself and that they shouldn’t be offended if I don’t meet their eyes.

But how do these make for a better experience?

Being aware of the former, I can focus on my speech patterns and, to some extent, control them, or at least alter them slightly. This helps me to differentiate between characters, speeding up and slowing down as needed, whilst also allowing me to make a conscious effort when it comes to word choice and emphasis (the latter being something I REALLY struggle with in everyday life). I know that I’m not terribly good at voices, my throat isn’t terribly flexible in that regard, so leveraging this factor makes for a markedly better experience at the table.

The second fact, the lack of eye contact, helps more with physical portrayals. Because meeting eyes is a conscious effort for me, I am very aware of my own physicality which means I am more able to physically embody the character of the moment through minor changes of my neutral state, rather than making a more conscious effort to act as/portray them. When it comes to narration, and the less character-driven GM/player interactions, I tend to focus on a spot above the player’s shoulder, just to the side of their head, as many public speakers will advise you to do.

One of the consequences of speaking quickly, however, is that mistakes WILL be made. As with many things in life, mistakes are inevitable, and it is simply a question of learning from them. This… isn’t something you should broadcast to your players, but at the same you shouldn’t be afraid to admit it when you make a mistake, to take a step back and sort out where you went wrong.

Before you do that, however, it’s always worth taking the time to think objectively about the mistake, to work out if it can work for the betterment of the story. This is something which (I’ve found) quickly becomes second nature. Some of the best moments in my own game have come from me misspeaking or forgetting something important, or (and this is my personal favourite) making a mistake which the players don’t pick up on but roll with. Your players will be the best story creation resource you can ever have, don’t be afraid to roll with what they say. Not only does this mean you have to do less, but you’ll also make them feel more invested in the game.

And this is the crux of the matter. The more invested your players are, the less they’ll notice your social anxiety at play. Ultimately, the only thing to takeaway from this is that it’s best to accept mistakes will happen and to roll with them when they do.

My final two points are related more to before- and after-game behaviour.

The first is to do as much preparation as you are comfortable with. There’s no shame in preparing pages and pages of material if it makes you comfortable at the table, and equally there’s no shame in preparing very little (I touched upon this subject in many of my Behind the Screen videos). You should never measure yourself by how much you prepare vs. how much others prepare.

I typically prepare very little, assigning NPCs a single trait and goal (often on the fly) and giving major locations a three-phrase mood board rather than inventing everything in one go, preferring to discover through play.  This really works for me because it means I can ask my players to fill in details about the world, creating it alongside me, but I know (of) other people it doesn’t work for. Matt Mercer, for example, has said that he puts a lot of effort into creating his NPCs (and clearly he does when it comes to battle maps).

The upside of this approach is that everything is ready and you know everything you need to know (or nearly everything) when it becomes relevant, the downside is that things created for one location/mission etc. may not fit in another. Conversely, my approach means I know only the bare minimum about anything, but it’s flexible enough to fit anywhere. This is why, if you subject any of my storylines or encounter ideas to intense scrutiny, they’re pretty simple, just camouflaged by (hopefully) believable NPCs and player investment.

There is absolutely no point in making yourself uncomfortable

My final point is to tell you to communicate with your players. They are your single best source of feedback. Social anxiety will lie to you, it will tell you that you have failed and that your game sucked (certainly mine does). I am lucky enough to have a group which talks to each other a lot outside of the game and I use this as a constant passive feedback source, as well as just asking them for feedback periodically, to help me ignore the feeling that I’ve let them down.

Obviously, mental health problems have cycles and the effectiveness of asking for feedback varies (I promise you they are not lying when they say they had a good time) but I’ve found this, even though it’s really simple, does help the vast majority of the time.

Hopefully, by showing you how to leverage your own social anxiety as a way of monitoring character portrayal, and by providing a brief overview of the benefits of preparing a lot of (or very little) material for your game, whilst also encouraging you to ask for feedback, I’ve at least provided you a way to start enjoying yourself as a GM instead of being betrayed by the voices niggling away at your self-worth.

I’d be grateful if you’d share your own experiences, or offer your own advice, in the comments.

 

Review: Scion 2e (Origin and Hero)

I realised that I never got around to writing a review of one of my favourite games so here it is. Due to the nature of writing a review in character, there are aspects that are skipped over so if you want to ask for clarification in the comments, go ahead, I’ll do my best to answer!

Anyway, here we go!


Disclaimer: I backed Scion: Origin and Scion: Hero on Kickstarter and so was working with 1st printing material. It is logical to assume that some of the more egregious errors have now been fixed.

<audio notes of Ciarán Holt>

Fine, I’ll review your stupid books, Father, but next time any of the Morrígan’s get make themselves known, you’re dealing with them.

*sounds of a box opening, papers being rustled*

Both are well bound, full cover artwork covers their front, rear and spine. There is a weight to them, but with the page counts, that’s unsurprising. Origin is lighter, due to its far lesser page count, but both are comfortable. I can’t imagine holding Hero for extended periods of time, but-

*pages being riffled*

It’s light enough to be comfortable for moderate periods of time.

I’m happy to see the artwork extends to the inside of the books as well, the variety of artists (I’m lead to understand that artists from many or all of the cultures discussed were consulted) is impressive and sells the feeling the books are going for, namely describing the World we live in and the effects of the Divine upon it.

This information is largely shared between the two volumes: Origin presents a surface level understanding and Hero builds upon it further, presenting information that I was privy to only after you revealed my divine heritage to me during my Visitation. This is definitely intentional and, unlike other rulebooks you’ve made me examine, it would be hard to gain the complete experience the authors intend from only one of the books.

Origin, being the thinner of the two, is more concerned with what happens before a Visitation, or the time immediately after it. I remember when you made yourself known to me, Father, how blind I was then. The knowledge it includes about the World is limited in scope, but feels huge when you realise the ichor in the veins of the characters it helps non-Scions build is barely potent enough to make itself known. And that is the crux of the matter: Origin is meant as introduction to our World. It contains the core rules of a game which allows non-Scions to imagine they are members of a Pantheon far older than they can comprehend.

The rules it has cover character creation, the basic mechanics of the game, how to run the game, how to create mortal opponents (although it does have guidelines on the lower levels of legendary creatures and titanspawn) and all manner of ways in which the divine nature of a mortal can make itself known before a Visitation.

*sound of a book being put down*

Hero, on the other hand, is far more concerned with the life of a Hero, allowing these mortal characters to grow in Legend and become members of the Pantheon proper. I’m not sure how the authors found out so much about Terra Incognitae, but I don’t envy the person who had to travel there to do the research. Each of the more commonly encountered pantheons are described, as are their respective titans and Primordials, with the rest of the book building upon Origin’s character creation with lists of more overt manifestations of Divine nature and its rules on representing the beasties I deal with regularly in a tabletop-friendly format. Don’t get me wrong though, Father. These books have to be used together, something I can only surmise will extend to the other books in the line, whenever they are released.

Both books also include options for playing as Denizens of the world, that is non-human characters tied to a variety of pantheons, as well as sample characters that might be encountered.

The main flaws I found, as with most books of this kind, were the indices, the occasional typo and references to things which don’t exist in the rules. Thankfully, the errata you sent went a long way to fixing this.

I haven’t even started to describe on the fiction inserted between sections to demonstrate the feeling the game is going for but suffice it to say, it’s good.

If the other books in the line, Demigod and God, are as unsettlingly accurate, well presented and easy to understand whenever they are released, I might have play a few games myself to gain a taste of what you have, Father.

Anyway. You asked for my thoughts, so there they are. I hope that was good enough.

Something Went Wrong

The walls came down in ways she hadn’t expected. One by one, the neon barriers evaporated with a hiss of static as her fingers danced along her deck. Security programs flared into life, only to be disactivated moments later as she blasted past them in her search for the data. She dimly registered footsteps racing towards her in the darkened corridor.

“Eliz. We’ve gotta go! NOW!” Roark’s voice filled her head and her concentration wavered.

“Almost got it.” She whispered into her throat mic. “Nearly there.” Her fingers sped up, working the deck like an instrument, deleting firewalls left and right, brute-forcing her way through Ares’ defences. She could see the server stack now, a glowing pillar of gold in this virtual space.

The heavy booming noise of Roark’s hand-cannon rang out twice in quick succession.

“ELIZ!” He roared in her ear. “NOW!”

She gritted her teeth and slapped the code-bomb into place, tearing out a section of the stack as she did so. The virtual world began flashing and shaking around her, emerald lines spreading from the code-bomb deep into the radiant obelisk. She turned and ran, her avatar moving swiftly back to the portal, back into realspace and her body.

Sensory overload threatened to overwhelm her as it usually did as the world reasserted itself. Gone was the sterile, illuminated void of the virtual world, in its place an air-conditioned breeze wafting from the ceiling vents in the office block blew against her skin. She blinked and shook her head, clearing the post-deck haze.

The drone in front of her whirred and clicked as it pulled the deck back into its body. Another one, slightly smaller with a bulb of sensors on its back, chirruped, its wide, white wings beating slowly to keep it upright. The display on the end of its swan-neck glowed gently as text scrolled across it.

“Project.” She said quietly, standing and glancing towards where Roark stood, his arms braced against the corner of the corridor. The display darkened immediately, and lines of data began reeling in front of her eyes, projected onto the HUD of her glasses. “Roark. We’ve got ghosts incoming.”

He glanced back at her, his wide face frowning.

“Sure?” She nodded. “Right. Exfil plan B.” She looked at him, still woozy from the reality transfer. “Eliz, now!” She turned and started running, stumbling at first, the weight of her body at odds with the weightlessness of virtual space.

Cubicles flashed past her as she made her way towards the emergency stairs at the back of the floor, wageslaves plugged into their terminals, their minds toiling away at the currency mines, harvesting byte after byte of cryptocurrency. Her drones, all three painted white with mechanical wings and long, graceful necks tipped with blank displays, flew silently behind her, the snub-nosed pistols built into their chassis extending in readiness.

“Lopez, you’d better be out there.” She heard Roark call over the radio.

“Sure am.” The elf’s voice was cocky, self-assured. Her confidence was well deserved, Eliz didn’t know a better pilot.

“Cyg, door!” Eliz called out as the door came into view. The drone with her deck in it sped up, spinning in mid-air and uncoiling metallic tendrils from its back as it did so. The tendrils slammed into the door lock, sending sparks flying, and text began scrolling rapidly across her HUD as the drone’s software began overriding the security protocols. There was a beep moments later and the text stopped scrolling as the door clicked open.

“We’re there, L.” She said.

“Sure thing, honey.”  Eliz’s response was cut off before she could open her mouth by the sound of their escape shuttle’s guns spooling up and then punching through the hardened steelcrete wall of the office block. Dust and hunks of building material began flying through the doorway, the impact of larger chunks slowly pushing it open.

Eliz slammed into the wall next to it and closed the door, covering her ears against the sound of high velocity metal punching its way through the building’s external wall. Flashes of light caught her attention as Roark rounded the corner, his gun arm extended behind him, a bestial look on his face. She waited until he was mere steps from her and then slung the door open.

The cold night air rushed in, followed swiftly by the shuttle’s landing bay lights as the cargo doors dropped open.

“The party’s waiting.” Lopez’s voice cut into the artificial silence she’d created. Roark dashed through the door, holstering his firearm as he did so. Eliz glanced back the way he’d come, her eyes struggling to focus on the figures following him, their projected camouflage making them near invisible in the office hallway.

A few wageslaves, their minds disconnected from the crypto-mines, were beginning to stand up, looking over the cubicle walls as they realised something was happening around them. She recognised the pale skin and blown pupils of long-term virtual space habitation. The world would be a dream-like haze to them for hours yet.

She pulled a flash grenade from her belt and primed it, throwing it over her shoulder as she dashed through the door, checked her drones were waiting, and yanked it shut. She took as few steps backwards and then turned, sprinting down the stairs towards the hole in the wall, heading for the shuttle hovering in mid-air.

She watched Roark launch himself across the gap and come to a roll on the metal floor of the cargo bay.

She reached out with her hands as she reached the bottom of the stairs, resting them on her drones. She jumped, letting them carry her across the short gap and lower her gently to the floor of the shuttle.

“We’re in.” She called out, slamming a hand against the door’s close button.

“Hold on!” Lopez shouted back. Eliz and Roark were thrown towards the closing doors as the shuttle rapidly accelerated away from the Ares’ owned office block. They shared a look and she offered him a hand up.

“I don’t know what you were doing in virtual space.” He said, taking it gratefully. “But something went wrong.”

Atlas Inspirare – The Monarchy of the Enduring Sages

With Widowfort at its far western point, and Scour at its eastern, the Monarchy of the Enduring Sages is the largest of the nations on Omnis. Its northern border abuts the Starspire Forest, the Ozark Desert and the tiny independent nation of the Iron Peaks, whilst the ocean bounds it on all three remaining sides. It is said that nowhere in Thalen are so many disparate peoples thrown together under the auspices of a single ruler than in the Monarchy.

But this is not quite accurate. The city-states which make up the Monarchy are allied through treaties and pacts, not through conquest, and the Sage-King (or Queen) is a monarch only through dint of tradition and elaborately worded agreements. The various cities themselves (Widowton, Scour and the Fire Keep) act as rulers of their own domains, ensuring the peace is kept, the people are fed and an appropriate tithe is paid to the Monarch in the Abbey of the Crown situated on the northernmost isle of Shearmouth.

Built on a cluster of islands, and later added to with the construction of the Abbey’s Refuge (a floating town sized pontoon designed to be a wharf, industrial centre and trading hub), Shearmouth is a holy city built in the mouth of the river Shear. The oldest of the principal cities, the monks who rose to power within Shearmouth realised that their position didn’t lend itself to growing crops to feed an army, nor were they positioned over important mineral veins or other mining opportunities. Instead, they focused on political power, placing Shearmouth as the middle party in the various trading, non-aggression and defence treaties signed between the various other cities. With a carefully worded clause here, and by exploiting a loophole there, the Abbey of the Crown, as it is known today, rose to prominence and could soon lay claim to the largest standing army on the continent.

Knowing they were beaten for the moment, the other cities focussed on developing their own holdings and protecting their own people. Whilst the Ashlands became a fertile land of fortified villages, and whilst Scour grew into a massive city incorporating all the industries it would need to become self-sufficient, Shearmouth became a political power to be reckoned with, negotiating with the other nations of Omnis and even sending emissaries over the Widow’s Walk to the neighbouring continent of Tremant.

Its power began to wane, however, with the fall of Gith-Drannok. When the enchantments surrounding the Jewel of the Southern Valleys fell, the weight of Shearmouth’s bureaucracy made itself known and by the time the Monarchy’s forces were marshalled, it was too late. Now, undead creatures and other monstrosities stalk the Heartlands of the Monarchy of the Enduring Sages. Travellers wishing to cross to the Vale of Tears in the west, journey to the Ashlands in the north-east, or the Pilgrim’s Peninsula in the south-east, must now hire guards, or risk their very lives on the Great Trade Road spanning the breadth of the Monarchy.

As the city fell, so too did the Sage-Queen’s influence. Her weaknesses exposed, the other cities rebelled, forcing her to respond with force, drawing upon an army she could not feed or afford to field for long. The war which followed was short, lasting only four years, and resulted in the defeat of the Sage-Queen’s forces. In the aftermath, the balance of power within the Monarchy shifted. The Trade-Cities Agreement named each city an independent state in its own right, with the Sage-King/Queen being the nominal head of the Monarchy in exchange for allowing the other cities’ access to the large store of information contained with the Abbey of the Crown. These days, the monks of the Abbey function as diplomats, advisors and spies, rooting out insurrections and criminal elements that would otherwise disturb the delicate balance of peace between the cities of the Monarchy of the Enduring Sages.

Plot Hooks

A movement, previously unknown, has been gathering support and works towards one goal; the overthrow of the Sage-King.

Travellers report the great dragon of the Heartlands has been seen again, terrorising merchant caravans as they travel along the Great Trade Road.

The waters along the coastline of the Monarchy have slowly been turning red and no-one knows why.

Emissaries from the Iron Peaks have gone missing on their long journey to Shearmouth. It is said they brought information on a new weapon with them.

A series of earthquakes and other natural disasters have been reducing large sections of the Monarchy to ruins. The common folk are scared and many fear a great demon has awoken in Gith-Drannok.

Apology on a Tear-stained Note

The Institute is silent around her. The final patient had been moved last week, taken into the care of a hospice at the wishes of his family, and she had spent the time walking the halls and talking to old ghosts.

For a woman of her age, Christine Bjovon is still attractive. Her once white-gold hair is a now pure silver, bound in a simple braid and decorated only with a simple bone clip, a gift from a friend in Tibet. Her piercing blue eyes, untouched by the ravages of time, stare at the papers on her desk as she runs through her mental inventory again.

The last of Erica’s bequest would be sent to Mahmoud’s child, paying for her education and, hopefully, opening doors that would otherwise be closed.

The continuing royalties of her books, both the supernatural fiction Danny had encouraged her to write, and the carefully distributed notes on the true nature of the world, were to be returned to Wesson and Wesson, paying for the continued work of both Donna and Kimberly. The girls were the apples of their grandfathers’ eyes and she knows the world is safer with them in it.

The monies donated to her institution had troubled her greatly. She had done good work here, she knows that, but taking money from the families of those she had helped always sat ill. Her manager, Patrick McBride, always told her that it was a sign of their gratitude for helping loved ones in their time of need, but to her it felt like blood money.

Only she and Scottie know that those who came to her never died, not really. Her institute dealt with the physical bodies, but their minds walked the Dreamlands and healed from the horrors of their lives. In the years after the Great Depression, the need for her methods had dwindled slowly, until the United States joined the war against Hitler in Europe.

After Pearl Harbour, and the horrific years that followed, she had been forced to pay for an extension to the Sweet Wing as more and more souls in need of help entered her care. She had always dreaded coming in to work one day and finding Naimith there, his skin scarred by shrapnel or burned by an explosion and his mind in tatters once more. Fortunately, it had never happened, and she had spent years healing those she could, and helping those she couldn’t.

But the money had kept coming until Patrick suggested setting up a foundation of her own, a source of money to go towards funding psychiatric training for people like her, orphaned by war and unable to better themselves unless through extremely fortuitous circumstances. She had smiled at that, the circumstances would always be horrific in her mind, but Erica had helped put her through school and had believed in what she wanted to do, and thus the Carlyle-Bjovon Foundation for Disadvantaged Youth was created.

Over the years, its coffers had swelled as other members of the profession began to contribute, including those the Foundation itself had once supported, and she knows that it will be secure long after her death.

Her own estate, what little of it that isn’t tied up in the Institute, is left to Alexander and his family. She knows it will be little comfort but hopes that they will make good use of it. She sees in her grandchildren the same passion she had felt every day of her life since waking up in the cold Norwegian sea and hopes they won’t be afraid to embrace it, to wander the world as she had and learn about all the different facets of life and culture that could be found by someone with a questioning mind and an easy smile.

She has left strict instructions about her personal library. Some volumes, mostly poetry and her earlier, unpublished, attempts at fiction, are to be donated to a worthy cause. Everything else, the total sum of the arcane and occult knowledge she had collected over her long life is to be sent a select few acquaintances around the world where she hopes the information could best be used. Everything that is, except her journals.

Those are to be delivered to Wesson and Wesson for immediate copying and disbursement to the girls and their colleagues. If she could save just one of them in their battle against the shadows of the world, she can rest easy. They are doing something she could never have done, something she had admired Winston for doing. Her place was in the background, researching, tabulating, interpreting and feeding that information to those on the frontlines, the people who made it their business to hunt down the monsters and the cults that sought to forever rend the barriers between the world and the Outer Realities. It had taken her to some dangerous places, but she knows the danger they put themselves in every day is greater by far.

As for the Bjovon Institute of Peaceful Dreaming, that is to pass into the immediate care of Patrick McBride. There is something about the young Scotsman that told her he knows something of the world she had been exposed to and will handle the Institute’s transformation from sanatorium to research hospital with the exquisite care and dedication he exhibits in every aspect of his life. They had spent many hours discussing the future and had decided that it should become a place of hope for all, and not a hospice for the hopeless.

She had taught him everything she could of the Dreamlands, and of Dreaming, and knows that his future would be bright.

She sits forwards in the chair, picking her pen up from the desk, as she finishes the mental checklist. Only one thing is left to do.

Minutes passed as she writes, slowly and carefully, tears falling from her eyes as she finally acknowledges the pain she has lived with for decades, but when she is done, and all the tears have fallen, she seals the letter in an envelope, reaches into a drawer and copies down an address she had been given years ago and never used. She gazes at it for a moment, a smile on her lips that can’t quite eclipse the sadness in her eyes and places it carefully in front of her where it will be seen immediately, before leaning back in her chair and closing her eyes for the last time.

She wakes, her knees free of the aches that have plagued her for decades, her hair blowing as finely as golden silk in the sea-air, and stands, enjoying the warm sun of the Dreamlands as it beats down upon her.

“Walk with me.” A deep, impossibly old voice says, and she turns, craning her neck to meet the eyes of the bearded, elderly man towering above her. She smiles and nods, savouring the sand as it runs between her toes. “I asked you once, long ago, why you were doing it. Why you were risking everything to hold back the Crawling Chaos. Do you remember what you said?”

She nods again.

“I said freedom. The freedom to choose and to live as I wanted. But I was wrong.” She looks at the god-being next to her, trying to gauge his reaction. “I have spent many years thinking about this, bringing hope to the hopeless and healing the wrongs of the world, and it was always about others. I would give my life for any one of those people out there.” She falls silent, formulating her thoughts. “I did what I did, not for myself, but for others. So that they would be free to live, to laugh and to love without ever having to know about the horrors that lurk at the edges of the world.” She feels his hand on her shoulder.

“And my other question? Do you remember what I asked?”

She nods a third time.

“My answer is the same now, at the end of my part, as it was then; I do it because of one man.”

***

Her letter is delivered two weeks later, the address smudged by the heavy rain falling that day. A man, his powerful build no less impressive now than it was in his prime, adjusts his spectacles and opens it with shaking hands.

He recognises the handwriting, he had kept her last note to him all these years, but he isn’t prepared for the fountain of emotions that wells up in him as he holds the note, his eyes absorbing the careful script, the blurred ink where her tears have fallen, and the ticket stub for his old carnival that came with it.

He sits carefully by the fire, the full decanter of whisky nearby a constant reminder of the temptations he had given in to when she had left. The flames crackle merrily, consuming the log on the hearth, as he starts to read, his tears slowly mixing with the stains of hers.

My dearest William,

You have always been in my thoughts of late, a visitor I welcome with open arms and an unburdened heart, and I had hoped to see you again before the end. The world has changed so much since we last met, and has brought with it new dangers, new weapons and new illnesses. I don’t know how much time I have left, so I am choosing to leave on my own terms, to take one last journey into the Dreamlands.

I am dead, but I am happy to die.

I look at our son and his family and see a bright light in the future, I see a candle burning brightly in the darkness, and I am proud of what we created.

I have lived well and fully, William, with no regrets save one. I am sorry that I could not be the woman you deserved. In another life, I believe we would have been happy together, a love to put all others to shame, and there has never been another man in my life.

But I cannot apologise for being who I am, nor can I ask you to forgive me. I ask only that you think of our time together as fondly as I do, and that you love our son for the both of us.

You are a good man, William Naimith, and it made me happy that, for a while, you were my good man.

I always loved you.

Christine Bjovon

 

The World and its People – Vornal’s Refuge

Growing out of a ruined temple complex built on the coast at the extreme northern edge of the Ozark Desert, Vornal’s Refuge is a place for seekers after truth and those who have nowhere else to go. Founded centuries ago by a diminutive sorcerer from the south named Vornal Appleblossom, the tent city is one of the few permanent settlements in the Ozark Desert which aren’t dependant on a dwarf hold buried beneath them.

Fertile coastal soil and easy access to vast schools of fish provide plentiful free food, supplemented by regular trade caravans and the skills brought by a large transient population have allowed Vornal’s Refuge to grow beyond the initial, ramshackle construction built by Vornal. What began as a place to house his collection of knowledge has become one of the largest libraries on the continent and a safe place for marginalised peoples from the world over. The initial core of the city, known to all and sundry as Vornal’s Tower, is a three-storey, rickety wooden structure shored up by magic and full of scrolls, codices, books and other, more arcane, methods of preserving knowledge.

From Vornal’s Tower, the city grew in an organic, hodge-podge fashion. Fisherman’s Wharf and Farmer’s Fields, built up against the temple walls on opposite sides of the city, provide housing for the city’s food producers. Fisherman’s Wharf, a hundred feet above the waves which provide the piscine bounty many traders journey through the desert for, is a collection of boats, hauled up the cliffs and assembled into a walled enclave by mages from years past. Farmer’s Fields, on the other hand, is a small collection of firmly built, weather-proofed sheds combining housing, smoking rooms and storehouses for all the many crops grown along the coast.

The rest of the city, for the most part, is a mish-mash of racial architecture, purposes and faiths. Temples to knowledge are built against mercantile shacks selling jewellery, books, food and general trade goods. Desert-folk huts provide shelter next to the fragile forest-folk pavilions, and everywhere the people smile and call out to each other, providing a welcoming haven from the evils of the world.

That isn’t to say problems don’t occur. When disagreements break out, or something goes wrong, a body of citizens, formed of long-time inhabitants and off-duty caravan guards, marshals and enforces the city’s tenets of peace and harmony. Justice is swift and uncompromising, but agreed by all to be fair and true, and Vornal’s Refuge, in the many years since the last Cataclysm, has grown to include many of the world’s greatest thinkers and spell-casters, protected by a community dedicated to preserving knowledge and truth at all costs.

 

People

Vornal Appleblossom hasn’t been seen in many years, not since he returned with a curious tome bound in human flesh and locked it securely in a hidden vault. Whilst many think he has finally passed from the mortal world, there are seers in the community who insist he is merely adventuring and growing his vast store of knowledge.

Lothric Gemcutter is a desert-folk trader from Mordain’s Vigil who left behind a lucrative job to found a branch of their family’s caravan network in a place where they could be themselves without prejudice or being judged. Their life hasn’t been easy, but the caravan business is taking off and their attempts at creating some sort of regulated trading body have been well-received.

Siarel Nilrosin doesn’t know why she’s in Vornal’s Refuge. She walked out of the Desert three years ago, her clothes in tatters and her eyes magically sealed shut. Those who have gotten to know her are convinced that she followed the call of some, as yet, unknown deity. Regardless of her purpose, her advice is sought by many of the city’s spell-casters as few doubt her proficiency in the arcane arts.

Brunhild Freyasdottir has served for many years as the de facto leader of the judicial system within the city. People turn to her when they feel they have a legitimate grievance and it is she who decides whether or not to marshal her people and what the correct punishment should be. There are few who disagree with her judgements and many cannot imagine the city without her.

Torvak Stonefist is a giant of a man, his pale skin covered in the dark tattoos of a tribe from another continent. He found himself trapped in Vornal’s Refuge when the ship he was crewing crashed on some unseen rocks and he was rescued by a fishing boat heading back to port. With no knowledge of the sea, and with no access to the seafaring vessels he would need to return home, he has carved out a place for himself as a strongman willing to help with any project he can.

 

Plothooks

There are books missing from Vornal’s Tower, and no-one has seen anyone remove anything from the ramshackle building for months.

Caravans are reporting strange, metallic creatures attacking them in the desert sands. Until this is investigated fully, Lothric will not allow anyone to leave the city alone.

Siarel has been dreaming of a storm blowing in from the desert, one greater than any which has come before, and is seeking adventurers to help her find some artefacts buried beneath the sands which may help in the days to come.

Someone is poisoning wells around the city and Brunhild Freyasdottir needs more experienced eyes than hers to find the culprit.

Whilst helping repair a beacon on a nearby headland, Torvak Stonefist saw a ship crashing through the waves. No sailors were on deck, and great holes rent its hull, but most bizarrely of all, it sailed against the wind.

Role-playing 204 – Beyond the Threshold

Death. It comes to every character eventually. Whether the result of poor dice rolls, or years after the end of a campaign, all characters die, apart from those elevated to godhood or similar. For those game systems that allow resurrection, death is usually only a minor hurdle, surmounted by enough money and/or magic.

The purpose of this article to suggest alternative rules for death and dying, I leave it to the discretion of the GM how many of these rules are implemented and, as ever, GMs should feel free to edit them as required. These rules are intended to add narrative flair to a game, not to bog it down. If you discover that a particular idea doesn’t work for you or your group, feel free to ignore it.

Let’s get started, shall we?

The first rule is something that I know other people implement for resurrections, namely role-play the ritual, in order to place the emphasis of the magic upon the players and their actions. While some GMs call for a dice roll to determine the effects of the ritual (reducing this to a more mechanical step in the process), my view is that it is the perfect time for character development. By including the player characters in the resurrection, the players have the perfect opportunity to show how their character feels about the dead and thus build upon their relationship with the dead character should the resurrection prove successful.

Linked to the first rule is that the resurrected character should return to life with a fraction of the personality of those involved in the resurrection.  Whose personality the newly returned to life character has a reflection of is left the GM’s discretion, I recommend the primary actor for the resurrection, or random chance. The aim here is to reflect the strength of the bond between the resurrected character and their party members.

A third rule is the ‘death quest’. If a player knows they want the character to return, you could use the resurrection ritual as an opportunity to run the player through a series of vignettes designed to uncover more about the character, perhaps by highlighting important moments in their life. The benefits of this are mostly focussed around the dead character and their development. Depending on what you choose to do during the ‘death quest’, you might also be able to explore how the dead character feels about other characters in the game and so further define their relationships within the game.

A fourth rule is the ‘touch of death’. Much like the second rule, this intended to be a temporary character addition. How this rule is actually implemented is left to the GM to decide, but it should represent some sort of protection against the forces of death for small period of time because of a remnant of the resurrection magic lingering within the character’s body, as well as a few character traits that reflect an either uncaring attitude towards death or a focus on death/dying such as fatalism, recklessness, arrogance etc.

All of these are intended to help player death drive character development. Whether or not you use them is, as always, up to you. If you decide to adopt one or more of these rules, or have your own ideas, I’d be interested in hearing your experiences in the comments below.