A coward and a traitor!

A coward and a traitor!

On the weekend I ran a one-shot set in my Compromise and Conceit world, using my improvised high-speed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) rules. This adventure was set in North America in 1865, in the Red Empire. This setting is 100 years after the death of George Washington at the hands of my London group, and the subsequent collapse of the British colonial effort in America. In the aftermath the British controlled a narrow line of territories on the East coast, and over the subsequent 100 years repeated attempts to regain colonial ground had come largely to nothing. In 1865 the great land mass of North America now consisted of a huge native American Empire covering the centre of the land, and smaller nations on the eastern and south-western corners. Our group consisted of a mixed band of native Americans from these disparate nations, all gathered on a mission of revenge in a remote northern area of the Red Empire, some days’ ride south of the border with New France (Canada). Our party consists of:

  • Wachiwi: a Sioux scout, blessed with special powers to dance in shadows and summon the aid of her tribe’s ancient spirits
  • Weayaya: a Sioux skinwalker, capable of taking the form of other humans and animals, but also quite a strong fighter with a spear
  • Atha’halwe: a Navajo wiseman from the Empire of the Sun, the large empire in the south-west that was founded by the Navajo; this wiseman called on powers of sun and moon, and fought with a semi-magical curved sword he obtained from a demon-faced warrior from beyond the seas
  • Wickaninnish: an Iroquois brave (fighter) bristling with strange spiritual artifacts, whose name means “No one sits before him in the canoe.” The group’s warrior but also able to call on healing and support powers from his tribe’s gods

For these characters I introduced some new ideas to make the system more redolent of the type of adventuring I am most fond of in wild west epics, which I always imagine as being based on the movie version of Last of the Mohicans. This type of adventuring requires individual bravery and recklessness, with feats of physical prowess that are obviously magically based, and leavened with a heavy dose of purposeful savagery. I also, of course, needed to infuse it with magic (since this is the fundamental basis of the Compromise and Conceit alternative history), and include some famous people. To achieve this style of adventuring, I made some small additions to the fortune point rules:

  • I changed their name to “coup points”, and made them more powerful: in my hyper-lite version of WFRP 3 coup points can be used to reroll all dice of one colour in a dice pool. They can also be used to add an expertise die to a dice pool – not just two fortune dice as in standard WFRP
  • Coup points are regained through scalping! Each PC has a form of “counting coup” that they can use on an enemy they have killed themselves. This enemy must be killed in melee, and a PC can only count coup on their own victim. Each PC establishes their own specific style of counting coup – it doesn’t have to be scalping, but it has to be something that humiliates a dying enemy. When the PC delivers the killing blow their player declares that they will spend the next round counting coup: this means they lose their action for a full round, and spend it doing something horrible to their victim. They make a fellowship check, and if successful they gain a coup point – plus they may also recover damage, fatigue or stress. This mechanism ensured that the players would privilege melee combat over missile and stealth, and would have a powerful reason based in the rules for engaging in the kind of savagery that every western movie about native Americans naturally makes a centerpiece of the narrative.

I am aware that scalping was probably imported by the white colonists, and that this depiction of the “noble savage” is extremely contentious amongst modern native American activists (though I get the impression that Last of the Mohicans was well-received, and included a major role for a major native American activist), but I wanted to make this campaign fit the dramatic style of movies like Last of the Mohicans. Also, the Compromise and Conceit world is all about myths and ideological caricatures from western literature made real – Catholics in this world are demon-summoning hypocrites and everything in Dr. Faustus came true. Compromise and Conceit also involves confronting the colonial powers with their own stereotypes and mythical notions about the “uncivilized” lands they are colonizing – but making these myths and stereotypes real, and seeing how the colonial powers handle their enemies if even half the things they said about them were actually true. As a result of this, for example, the British lost any chance at colonizing New Zealand, and are trapped on the fringes of a hostile and inhospitable Australia where the land itself rises up against them. It seems natural that when trying to colonize America they should meet magical larger-than-life versions of all the fears they have about native Americans!

I also introduced a system of totems. Totems are objects that the PCs carry that they can deploy for blessings in battle: only one per battle, and totems are largely the province of non-magical characters – they are charms carried into battle by those who lack magic. The party have to make a decision when they enter battle as to what they will deploy, and this is the only benefit they obtain through the whole battle. They cannot be deployed outside of battle, but everyone benefits from them. These totems are a unique magic item for native American characters – there is no equivalent thing for the British, for example.

On this basis we prepared a one-shot set in the Red Empire. Stay tuned for the record of battle …

Clare and her Gyrfalcon

Clare and her Gyrfalcon

Clare de Lune is one of the characters I generated for the Compromise and Conceit one-shot. She is an ex-exotic dancer for the French troop known as the Cirque de Lune, probably kicked out for some kind of crime against the circus’s managers. Her magic uses nature, perception and deception. She has some combat skills, though she is a little fragile, and she also uses a large bird of prey as a familiar/battle ally, to make missile attacks and distract foes in combat.

This character description shows how simple and easy a character is to generate if you strip all the details out of the WFRP 3 system and just use the very basic dice, attribute and fatigue ideas. Note there are no skills – Clare de Lune is trained in four areas, and that is all. Also the spells I just made up – I didn’t aim for any sense of balance or usefulness, just designed spells to suit the character concept. I think this method works quite well, provide players are happy with a character that may have no use in some circumstances.

Character name:      Clare de Lune

Archetype-thingy:    Cirque du Lune bird dancer                        Feat Points: 3

Attributes

Strength 3 Intelligence 4
Toughness 3 Willpower 3
Agility 5 Fellowship 5

Trained in:

  1. Casting spells
  2. Animal handling
  3. Perception
  4. Spotting lies and tricks

Combat stuff

Defense Wounds Max/ Current
Melee 5 Fatigue       3 /
Missile 5 Stress       3 /
Surprised 5 Criticals (max:   )       3  /
Armour (  warm weather stuff ) 1 (4) Wounds       13 /

Weapons

Weapon Damage Critical Notes
Long knives 4+Str=7 2 Fast (+1 Initiative)
Crossbow 5+Ag=10 2  
Bird 3+Fellowship=8 3 Ranged Fellowship attack

Clare de Lune’s bird

Clare’s bird can be used to perform three tricks:

  • Attack (fellowship-based attack against opponents missile defense)
  • Hover over hidden targets (Clare de Lune can make missile attacks even if she can’t see the enemy, at +2 defense)
  • Distract (fellowship-based attack against opponent’s intelligence; success adds difficulty to enemy’s actions)

The bird can take 5 points of fatigue before it flies away; every failed attempt to do any trick causes 1 point of fatigue, as does any successful hit on the bird (defense 6). It recovers fatigue at 1 point per hour.

Clare de Lune’s spells

Name Difficulty Effect
Grace of Ages 4 Swap 1 blue die for green per success. Lasts WP rounds
Scarlet Pimpernel Highest Fellowship Assume a disguise, lasts 1 min/success (+1 hr/comet)
Riverdance 4 Walk on water for 1 rd/success.
Opium dream 4 Take opium, get a chance to do an overview perception check of all land within 1km / success. Boons/comets enhance the check
Soar with the eagles 4 Can see through the eyes of her bird for 1 min/success. Gain +1 training in perception

 

The morning after ...

The morning after …

The murderer was clearly in the volcano. Our heroes, having been asked to go and find him, set off up the mountainside to the location of his victim, from whence they hoped to track him. Now they were joined by Grunstein the wizard, who had travelled ahead to Steamline Spa on his own business. The slopes of the volcano loom over the northern side of Steamline Spa, and take some hours to climb to the misty summit; but all these slopes were smooth and perfect as an old Emperor’s burial mound, and a smooth path wound up the sides of the volcano, through fields scattered with sheep and dour shepherds. Brom Barca’s attempts to buy sheep having been rudely rebuffed, the group trudged on without incident until they reached the murder scene, a smear of blood and gore behind one of the volcano’s scattered basalt boulders. Rounding the rock, they found a scene of horror: the body of the dead shepherd had been torn apart and scattered across the land behind the boulder, disfigured so thoroughly and violently that it was almost impossible to say how the victim had died. Nonetheless, Leticia the elven swordmaster was able to piece together the clues; the attack had started with a sudden strike of the shepherd’s head against the boulder, and the shepherd had then been mercilessly mutilated while he yet lived. There was evidence that he had been drugged – perhaps with a soporific called Poggle’s Drakeboon – in order to ensure his unhappy compliance with his own dismal destruction. They could not find the head, though the ears were resting on a ledge of the boulder …

Having established they were most certainly dealing with a murder, the PCs set off up the mountainside to catch this evil Otto Mercads. Grunstein employed a new spell to transform himself into a wolf, and easily followed the scent of death and terror up the mountainside. They marched for another hour or so, into the mists that surrounded the top of the volcano. Here was a caldera, surrounded by high but broken walls of old volcanic stone. A narrow crevasse ran through the caldera wall, and they found themselves looking inside the volcano. The caldera was a rough bowl shape, filled with steam and a gentle rain from the higher steam as it emerged from the caldera to suddenly cool in the mountain air. A narrow path ran down from their crevasse to the bottom of the bowl, but it was impossible to see where it ended due to the steam billowing around the caldera. They reached the caldera a little after midday, so the bright mountain sunlight was streaming in great golden lances through the steam, but it was obvious that in just an hour or two this cloistered feature would be shrouded in clammy darkness as its walls cut out the sun. Realizing it best to do battle in the bright noon light, Azahi the dwarf marched forth down the narrow path. The others followed, and as they approached the bottom of the path they could hear the sounds of manic laughter echoing off the walls.

At the bottom of the path they found a small, neatly laid-out camp under a lean-to, with the shepherd’s severed head in pride of place in the middle. The steam parted for them as they fanned out in the caldera, revealing a large central pool of nearly-boiling water. A large stone jutted into the pool, and on this outcrop they could see Otto Mercad’s crouched and chuckling, painting pictures of blood with a loop of intestine and talking to himself. They approached carefully but he did not seem to care, and just laughed manically as they grabbed him, beat him a little, and tied him up.

Too easy. Just a few hours later they were leaving Steamline Spa with Otto chained in an empty wine barrel out of sight of prying eyes in their wagon …

The storm and the Drowning Well

That day’s travel was uneventful, but towards evening a vicious storm rolled in off the mountains, and they found themselves being pummeled by howling winds and heavy rain. Fortunately they had been told of an inn along the road, that most travelers a day out of Steamline Spa could expect to lodge at for the night. They redoubled their pace to this tavern, passing as they did a band of four road-wardens who had been called out in the inclement weather to attend a possible beastman raid. They were also surprised by a bounty hunter called Elizabeth, who emerged from the shadows of an old redgum to ask for their company on the final kilometre to the inn. She told them her horse had been lamed in the storm and, having killed it, she was walking to the inn to pick up the tail of her targets, two bandits who she had a mark on. A dour and tough-looking woman, she seemed more than capable of killing a horse and capturing two ruffians. All travellers on the road were focused now on the inn and respite from the rain, so few questions were asked; instead, they all slogged on through the gathering gloom, the howling winds and the mud.

By the time they arrived it was not yet sunset, but the storm was so intense that it had blocked out most of the light, and they arrived at the gates of the inn feeling as if it were already late. Grunstein the wizard had transformed into a raven and flown ahead, so he missed the strange arcane markings daubed on the wall by the gate, and none of the other PCs were able to decode them. Against the backdrop of the raging storm they pushed their way through the rain-soaked doors of the inn compound, and found themselves lodging within.

The inn was a large complex, consisting of a central three-storey mansion surrounded by stables, outhouses and gardens. The whole was ringed by a wall just over 2m high, made of dressed stone and thick enough both to repel any serious attempt at battery and to enable defenders standing atop the wall to fight back from crenelations. This kind of travelers rest is a common sight in the wilder fringes of civilization in the Steamlands, where local farmers are used to the predations of greenskins and, occasionally, beastmen. When a band is spotted approaching the neighbouring farms they lock up and flee to the travelers rest, from where they join together to fight off any siege and wait for roadwardens from other towns to relieve them. Like fighting summer fires, community defense is something that all remote farming hamlets practice at, and the scattered houses around the Drowning Well were no different, so it was no surprise to the PCs to find such a staunchly defensible tavern so far from civilization.

So, the PCs ducked into the tavern and booked a night’s accomodation, and a cellar for Otto Mercads. The cellar was as safe as a prison cell, pre-fit with chains and a portcullis that locked only from the outside, as well as a staunch outer door that only a minotaur could smash through. The Drowning Well was obviously used to hosting its share of passing prisoners, because the landlord locked Mercads down in this hole without a single word of complaint, and the group were able to repair quickly to drinking and relaxing. The evening passed uneventfully, and after a few hours’ rest the PCs were able to retire for a long, relaxing sleep.

The murders begin

The PCS were woken by the maid’s screams during the dead of night. The storm was still raging outside, but the maid was so disturbed that her anguished cries could be heard over the racket of howling wind, driving rain and banging shutters. Of course our heroes ran into the hallway to see the problem, and found themselves facing a familiar scene of horror: one of the guest rooms was open, and the occupant had been murdered in a very familiar way – the same way as Otto Mercad’s victim. There was blood and body parts everywhere, and guests gathering in the darkened hall to retch and cry in horror at the sight. The PCs, along with Elizabeth the bounty hunter, took charge, shepherding the guests downstairs to the common room and rushing to check on Mercads. They found Mercads sitting comfortably in his cell, chuckling and grinning and with not a drop of blood on him. How had he done it?

Other murders soon followed, with the maid, the landlord and his wife quick to succumb to some kind of brutish and supernatural force. Every time the murder was so reminiscent of Mercads’ artwork that the PCs just had to return to his cell to watch him, but the third time they returned they found him, too, dead, torn apart in the same way as the others. However this time they were fast enough to see the killer – a grotesque, incorporeal ghost, 3m tall and shaped like a beastman with a single eye. They attacked the ghost but it fled too fast, disappearing through a wall and out into the wilds of the night. Shocked, they realized that Mercads must have been the channel or conduit for some darker creature. They remembered finding a necklace made of a fleck of old beastman’s tusk when they captured him, and wondered if he might have been somehow connected with this ghost. While some of the PCs rushed to protect the guests in the common room, Gregor dashed to their own room to check on the chaos artifacts they were transporting to Heavenbalm, lest that should prove to be this beastman ghost’s true focus.

The ghost wasn’t there though, it was gone … but the beastmen were coming.

Artuta rises ...

Artuta rises …

The beastmen come

Shortly after they saw the beastman ghost, the PCs heard yells and clamour from the front door. Residents from nearby farmhouses were gathering at the gate, telling urgent stories of a new horror: a horde of beastmen was gathering in the darkness to attack the inn. As they filed in, bedraggled and dishevelled from the storm, they and the residents began to prepare for a siege. The PCs, however, were distracted by a light in the corner of the compound. Approaching, they saw the vague outline of a ghostly form, glowing faintly and flickering in the onslaught of rain and wind. This was no beastman, but the remnant form of a witch hunter, obviously injured and looking desperate, and wearing clothes from a previous generation – the ghost of someone with something important to tell them? As they approached the ghost whispered to them with a voice that carried despite the snatching wind and rolling thunder:

The truth is beneath the words. The truth …

With these words he disappeared, revealing a slab of stone, scoured clean of earth by the rain and wind, on which a short passage was inscribed:

Here lies Artuta,

Most twisted of the changer’s brood,

Cleansed by Solkan’s hands.

He will not be the last.

The PCs dug up the stone quickly, and beneath it they found a waterproof scrollcase, laid carefully in a hollow beneath the stone. Dashing out of the rain, they opened the case to find a torn piece of parchment, on which someone’s story was written:

I do not know why I have written this but I feel death is close. Artuta stares up at me. His one eye is still, but maybe it watches. Foolish thoughts, but in the forest lurk the remains of his band, now led by the Shaman Grazzt. He has strange dark powers at his call. Who knows what he can do?

What has brought this disquiet upon me? I cannot say, although a strange dream came to me last night. I was guarding Artuta even though he lies dead. Even in death, he led them. Yet I could not escape from this task for a wall surrounded me on all sides, a tunnel above through which I could see the stars. It was difficult to move, for my limbs were heavy.

This vision fills me with fear.

May Solkan watch over me.

Were these the words of the ghostly witch hunter?

At this point the party fragmented. Gregor fled back to his room and began a frenzied effort to destroy the amulet of the beastman tooth; Leticia and Brom Barca headed to the walls to coordinate the defense of the inn against the gathering horde of beastmen, who could now be heard outside the walls howling and preparing their attack; and Azahi the dwarven Trollslayer ran with Grunstein the wizard to the well after which the inn was named. Azahi had interpreted the “tunnel above through which I could see the stars” as the well, and wished to explore it. As he and Grunstein lowered themselves into the well they heard behind them the first roars of beastmen preparing for battle…

Born under a subterranean star ...

Born under a subterranean star …

The well and the battle

In the well Azahi and Grunstein found a tunnel leading into the earth below the inn. They followed it inward, Grunstein lighting the way with a cantrip, and soon found a locked stone door, on which a clear warning was written:

Ye thatz enter here, beware

For liez here, Artuta

When he rizes

Come hiz brood

To spill the blood of all.

The door was locked, and neither Grunstein nor Azahi a thief, but Azahi managed to remember a few hints of technical trickery from his dwarven tribe and disabled the lock. They opened the door to find a crypt, rough-hewn from the earth. In the centre was a depression covered in brush and rubbish; leaning against the walls of the room were four skeletons of beastmen. The mark of Tzeentch was carved into the wall at the far side of the room, and it was obvious what this room was – the resting place of something called Artuta, probably an ancient and powerful beastman. Grunstein began breaking up the first beastman skeleton, but before he had done much damage the other three came to life and attacked Azahi. The dwarf braced himself, and battle was joined; but as he fought the ghost of Artuta arose from the central resting place and fled out of the door. Both he and Grunstein struck at it, but their attacks failed to kill it, though they seemed to wound it badly. The ghost was now obviously more corporeal, gaining in power from the murders it had managed to commit, but still able to shift to ghost form, in which shape it drifted rapidly down the tunnel and out of the well into the stormy night.

Upstairs, the beastmen had begun to gather together for battle. Their force was far larger than a normal beastman band, numbering perhaps 30 in all and with four beastman captains. Lurking at the rear near some kind of makeshift altar was a strange figure indeed – a smaller beastman similar in appearance to a Gor and lacking full horns, unarmed and dressed in tattered cloth but obviously in charge despite its small size. As Brom Barca and Leticia watched, this figure was joined by the ghost of Artuta the beastman, and the attack began.

The inn compound had two gates, and the beastmen attacked both at once. Their attack was artless and brutal. A beastman captain charged forward, and used his enormous strength to boost a couple of Gor onto the walls; these then hauled the massive captain on, and they attacked. Meanwhile a gang of larger Gors lined up and took turns charging at the main gate, trying to smash it in with their horns. By this means, should the captain fail to seize the wall itself, his minions would still eventually beat down the gates. Unfortunately for this beastman captain and his Gor minions, Leticia and Brom Barca guarded the gates; Brom himself almost the size of a Gor took on the three minions, and Leticia moved forward to engage the captain, fighting with delicate poise and grace despite the slippery stones, the howling wind and the beating rain. The battle was short but brutal, and within a few short exchanges Brom and Leticia had slain their enemies. Leticia hacked off the head of the slain captain, and as Brom Barca lifted it high for all the beastmen to see the captain at the other gate began a temporary retreat. At this point Gregor joined them on the wall, scattering the fragments of the beastman amulet before him into the wind. This seemed to have no effect – the distant shaman ignored it, and Artuta’s flickering form did not change except to howl in rage at the retreating beastmen. Now Azahi and Grunstein also trudged up onto the wall through the rain, and our heroes grouped together ready to receive the next charge.

As the beastmen milled about, preparing to make a new attack and being berated, beaten and enraged by their captains, Gregor remembered the Hochland long rifle he had looted from bandits on the journey to Steamline Spa. Though the ghost of Artuta was far from the walls and beyond easy range of a crossbow or longbow, it was not beyond the reach of a long rifle, and Artuta was obviously injured. Perhaps if Gregor were lucky … he carefully lined up the rifle, Brom Barca and Leticia holding their cloaks over him to try and prevent the worst of the rain from damping his powder. He fired as the beastmen formed their lines for another charge, and his bullet flew true … with a single howl of outrage and shock, Artuta’s ghost dissolved into the storm, vanquished by the witch hunter. The beastman shaman took one look back at the walls, screamed his rage to the uncaring tempest, and without further ado turned to flee into the distant woods. His followers, seeing the destruction of their plan, lost all their lust for battle and fled after him.

The battle was done. The beastmen had failed to break the gate, and Artuta had been killed before they could drag any prisoners back to sacrifice for his manifestation. Whatever sick plot had been laid to wait here in the courtyard of the drowning well, it was done now. Though the PCs had inadvertently brought about the invocation of Artuta’s ghost by bringing Otto Mercads to the inn, they had triumphed over Artuta and his whole tribe. They could rest, and enjoy the reward of heroes. And heroes they must be, for in the morning they must surely head off in pursuit of the shaman, to uncover the full story of how Otto Mercads had become the kingpin in a plot to bring back an undead beastman; and to slay the shaman before he could foment more mischief. Perhaps in those hills they could find more dark magic to take to Heavenbalm for destruction … or perhaps there they would find their doom …

Brom Barca at the docks

Brom Barca at the docks

There are secrets in Separation City, but our heroes cannot plumb their depths from the confines of that small town – they must at some point follow the clues they have toward Heavenbalm and Store. Though they could stay a little longer to explore Separation City for further clues, our heroes now find themselves in possession of items of deep evil – a fragment of warpstone and a vile book of darkness – that they must take to Heavenbalm soon, before the essences of chaos should corrupt someone anew. They must also find a powerful priest who has some special blessings, that their minds can be put at ease from the horrors they have seen in these past months. With this in mind they decided to temporarily take their leave of Separation City, and head northwest to Heavenbalm. There they would destroy the evil items they had gathered, find ease in Sigmar’s peace, and investigate – probably brutally – the associates of the wizard they just recently vanquished in the crypts of Separation City.

Before they left though, our group of adventurers decided who would stay in Separation City, and who would venture forth. The journey to Heavenbalm is some 7 days in good weather, and knowing our party’s penchant for getting side-tracked in the war against evil, it seemed wise to expect the same band of adventurers would be together for some time. The newly-formed band included two new adventurers, once again introduced to the party by their patron, Baroness von Jungfreud. Four stalwart souls elected to leave the dubious sanctuary of Separation City:

  • Gregor Thornton, the witch-hunter who carried the evil items
  • Azahi, the dwarven troll-slayer, who would set out with the party in a covered wagon, so great was the affliction of his insanity
  • Brom Barca, human pit-fighter, a veritable giant of a man on a quest to find the only pit-fighter who ever beat him (and that through treachery)
  • Leticia, elven sword-master, of mysterious purpose as are all of her kind

Brom and Leticia were introduced to the party by von Jungfreud, and it was at this final meeting that the PCs were able to learn some things about her and her husband’s past that might in future help them to understand the importance of Separation City.

Meeting with Baroness von Jungfreud

With the spring weather becoming finer and warmer after the closing of the wattle-viewing season, Baroness von Jungfreud invited our heroes for a small party on her private yacht, perhaps also to do a little whale watching. With the sun glinting on the still waters of Separation Bay, a gentle breeze blowing through the canopied deck of her pretty little yacht, Baroness von Jungfreud treated our heroes to a fine repast of roasted meats, raw fish eaten fresh-landed and still dancing on the plate, bowls of preserved lilly-pillies, and rice wine in capacious quantities. As they ate and drank she freely answered all their questions, and the PCs learnt many things about her and her dead husband Mattix’s past:

  • Mattix was heir to a farming demesne in the sunlit highlands between Store and Heavenbalm. It was inland, on the slopes of Realmsight Mountain, in an area of rich forests and rice farms, and he stood to live a long, boring and healthy life taxing the local farmers
  • He never gave a clear reason for the move, except that he thought there were better prospects in Separation City – to do with trade between Dwarves, the Palace Cape and also opening up the inland
  • It was Mattix who set about establishing the Dwarven trading post and community. He employed a Dwarven architect, Archaex, to help build the ship spire and the associated underground storage and power source. He may still have the plans to it, and certainly still has the communications with the Dwarf amongst his personal possessions
  • Mattix had contacts in Store and Heavenbalm
  • Occasionally Mattix visited Store, always without the Baroness, and she thinks that he maybe had a lover there.

By the end of the meal they had come to understand that Mattix von Jungfreud had some plans involving the dwarves, and to know more about his past they would need to find this Dwarven architect Archaex. Baroness von Jungfreud, the dutiful wife and society socialite, gave no indication that she had any knowledge of whatever secrets his plans contained. They would need to investigate his lover, and his contact Archaex, to learn more.

But first, they needed to find solace and redemption at Heavenbalm, so they took their leave of Baroness von Jungfreud and headed into the hills

Bushrangers!

Springing the trap

Springing the trap

Their journey would take them through Steamline Spa – about two days’ journey from Separation City – and then on to Heavenbalm, another three days’ journey beyond that. The roads in spring were easily passable and smooth, so they took with them a wagon, holding their travel supplies and their dwarf, inchoate with crawling terrors after the undead near feasted on him. The first day of their journey was uneventful, but on the second day they came upon a strange and sinister tableaux. At this point the road parted around a small satoyama, with the main road continuing to the northwest but a small, disused trail cutting left from the road to ascend the satoyama in switchbacks. A crumbling and fading shrine gate on this smaller road pointed to a disused shrine in the heart of the satoyama, but the switchbacks were overgrown and obviously unused. To the left of the road and behind them were loose and scrubby eucalypt forest; to their right, open land leading to a small stream, which was surrounded by reeds and thick grasses. In the junction of the road, where the smaller path split from the main road, lay a fallen horse and rider, both clearly dead. The PCs stopped their wagon and horses and approached the bodies to investigate, leaving their dwarf rambling to himself in the wagon. They tried to see where the body had come from, how long it was dead, and what killed it, but none of them had any facility with medicine, and perhaps the bright sun had already begun its hideous work on the corpse. Brom Barca noticed, however, that the horse’s saddlebags seemed full of coin, and all three of our heroes descended with glee upon the corpse.

It was as they began to tear open these saddlebags that the bushrangers sprung their trap. Small squads of archers appeared simultaneously from the streamside, the forest behind the wagon, and the switchbacks on the satoyama. Each squad had three archers and a leader: a wizard on the hillside, some thug with a long rifle in the trees, and a sword-armed maniac in the stream. Caught on all sides in a hail of gunfire, our party had to act fast. Gregor moved to the edge of the path and opened fire upon those attacking from the stream; Brom Barca hauled his huge body up the switchbacks of the satoyama, charging through loose scrub and undergrowth with roaring, frenzied abandon; Leticia moved to engage the archers from the forest as they dropped their crossbows and charged to close combat.

Things did not go well at first, though. Brom Barca was caught in entangling vines by the wizard’s magic; Leticia was forced to cut and run in the face of superior numbers; and Gregor found himself sorely pressed and beaten back by the force of his enemies. As Leticia ran she was cut down with arrows, but the archers left her to deal with Brom Barca, who soon hauled himself from his entanglement and slew the offending wizard, spattering his fellows with gore and causing them to flee. Gregor, it seemed, would be surrounded and cut down like a dog, but the sounds of battle roused Azahi from his insanity and, stumbling from the wagon, he engaged Leticia’s foes before they could reach Gregor. This gave Brom Barca time to return to the fray, and soon the tide turned: all the bushrangers died like pigs at a slaughterhouse, Brom Barca laughing with joy as their blood spattered his apron and smeared his face, and Gregor pale-faced and grim with the dark job of stabbing, smashing and shooting. Then the job was done, Leticia rescued from a bad fate, the dwarf Azahi regaining enough poise to return to future battles, and Brom Barca bloodied, joyous with the thrill of murder done righteously.

They chased the remaining few bandits to the abandoned shrine, where they found them taking cover behind a wagon at the entrance, firing down the path at the party. Brom Barca cared not for the sting of bolts, though, and charged forward, his huge bulk hitting the wagon with such force that it overturned, splintering, and crushed the last three men beneath it. Then it was a simple job of jumping on the wagon, driving its splintered axle and wheel-frames into the pinned and desperate bandits until they writhed no more, and their blood consecrated the entry of the shrine: a bloody and frenzied chozubachi this. Once Brom Barca had spilt the blood on his hands and face, he entered the shrine to see if anyone else dared worship at the altar of death; but none were there. So they looted the bandits temple, and continued on their way to Steamline Spa.

The murderer of the caldera

When they reached Steamline Spa they handed in evidence of the dead bandits, and found accomodation in a fine hotel near the central lake. They were soon approached by an elder of the town, Merschak the steward, who asked them to attend to a delicate matter: a murderer called Otto Mercads, last son of a noble house, had returned to Steamline Spa and begun his horrific killings again. So far no one in the town knew except Merschak and the local lord, and they wanted some out-of-towners with a good reputation to go and find Mercads, and bring him back alive. Once caught, Merschak wanted the PCs to escort Otto to Heavenbalm, where he would again be locked up in a secure place far from harm – being a scion of a wealthy family, he could not be subjected to the rough justice of commoners, but would be locked away from the rest of the world for good. For finding him and taking him to Heavenbalm, the PCs would be paid 5 gold each.

The PCs agreed, and said they would seek out Otto the next morning. His victim had been found on the slopes of Mount Steamline, and it seemed likely he was hiding in the caldera; they must travel up the mountain the next day and find him. So bid, they agreed to the deal, and settled down for a pleasant and restful sleep, free of dreams and worries …

(Picture credit: the image of Brom Barca is by Guilherme Formenti)

Yesterday I GM’d a session of Warhammer 3rd Edition (WFRP 3), the next instalment in the Steamlands Campaign, but this time due to a lack of space and the ongoing fragmentation of my card collection I decided to implement some of the ideas I’ve been working on to simplify WFRP 3. Today we used the following:

  • Drop all active defenses and basic melee combat cards
  • Drop all more complex action cards that don’t involve a unique benefit: so e.g. Thunderous Blow is out, but Riposte is kept (since it gives a second attack)
  • Calculate combat difficulty from attributes, instead of using “one challenge die plus defense” rules
  • Allow players to use all their talent cards, not just the slotted ones
  • Make exhaustable talents a once-per-encounter phenomenon (most encounters being less than 5 rounds anyway)
  • Enhance fortune points: they now add expertise rather than fortune dice
  • Allow the expenditure of fatigue to gain bonus fortune dice
  • Fortune and misfortune dice cancel before rolling, to simplify dice pools
  • Number of successes on a melee attack acts as a damage bonus
  • Critical cards are for fluff only: all criticals are simply a +1 difficulty (i.e. one misfortune die) per critical suffered
  • Enemies also suffer criticals

Two players made new PCs for this session, so they selected only action cards that give an identifiable non-attack effect in combat. Cards selected were:

  • Riposte, which enables a free melee attack in response to a missed attack
  • Counterblow, which does the same for someone blocking
  • Twin pistols, which I now treat as a special ability (it has no recharge): add one challenge die to the dice pool to attack with two pistols
  • Who’s next? Which gives allies additional attacks or enables a cleave-like attack after killing someone
  • Berzerker Rage, which should be fairly obvious
  • Combat focus, which gives the user a bonus on attack rolls (not damage)

These cards enable the players to have more freedom to act and special benefits in combat, rather than simply making them do more damage or adding conditions as after-effects of successful attacks.

The result of this was a faster, more dynamic combat scene. The revised rules encouraged use of fortune points and fatigue, and made managing fatigue more crucial; big dice pools enable greater damage (there is no 3-success limit to damage as occurs on the cards), so in one case I think the biggest warrior did 17 points of damage (and one enemy bandit nearly did the same). The combat was over in four rounds but was just as dangerous: all three PCs were critically injured, one was unconscious and one incurred a temporary insanity. The whole battle – between three PCs and 12 enemies in an ambush from three directions, with one group fleeing and having to be chased – took just one hour (or maybe less) and everyone was able to stay focused through the whole thing. Managing enemies was much easier for me, since I didn’t have to worry about cards and the like. There was no faffing at the end of rounds, as I think only two cards (Berzerker Rage and Combat Focus) needed to have recharge tokens removed, and there was no fussing with talent cards or active defenses. Calculating hit targets was easy – players just tell me their attribute and defense score – and converting misfortune dice into challenge dice (at two-for-one rates) reduced dice pool sizes. The increased numbers of challenge dice also increased the number of chaos stars, so at last someone’s black powder weapon blew up[1].

I think the revised rules will also make enemies slightly more dangerous if they have attributes much bigger than the PCs, which means forces will be more evenly matched. For example, one bandit had a strength of 5 that he could use to defend with, which in the revised rules means 2 challenge dice and one misfortune die added to the dice pool. For an attacker with strength less than 5 this is going to be a tough target, and in fact in order to kill this guy the players had to use fatigue and fortune points to bolster attacks. Under the standard rules this guy would have been no more difficult to hit than any of his minions, and making him harder to hit would require me faffing with a variety of action cards.

Although I’m not fully assured of its effect on game balance, I like the effect of simplification on combat flow. I’m thinking of dropping armour-based defense scores too (making armour provide only soak values) to further simplify the combat resolution task. I’m also watching the revised collection of action cards to see if they’re worth the effort. But as a first attempt at speeding up and streamlining WFRP 3, the changes seem to have worked, and rescued the game from being crushed under the weight of its own innovations.

fn1: actually now I think about it, in the standard rules it is almost impossible for a black powder weapon to blow up. Most are Unreliable 2, which means you need two chaos stars to blow them, but chaos stars only occur on challenge dice and in most ranged combat situations you will only ever throw one challenge die. The standard rules make the difficulty of a ranged combat attack 1 challenge die + 1 misfortune per point of defense, so unless you’re using a card with additional challenge dice (of which there are few) you will never bow up your weapon.

Continuing my series of posts about the unnecessary complexity of Warhammer 3rd Edition (WFRP3) combat and skill resolution, today I want to focus on the construction of dice pools in combat. I have already shown that action cards may not provide much benefit in combat, and I have also explored an alternative method for setting skill difficulty, and today I want to explore the possibility that the combat system involves unnecessarily complex dice pools with limited value.

The standard method for handling defense in WFRP3 is divided into two parts: action cards add 1-2 black or purple dice to the dice pool, armour adds one black die per point of defense, and the attacker can add fortune dice through the use of talents, fate points and other types of enhancement. Furthermore, the basic difficulty of all attacks is 1 challenge die, with some cards having additional challenge and/or misfortune dice. Thus a starting warrior with strength of 4, one point of training, 1 fortune die on strength and a talent that gives an additional fortune die will have a basic attacking pool of 4 blue, 1 yellow, 2 white; against a target defending (+1 misfortune) and wearing lightish armour (+2 defense) the final dice pool will be: 4 blue, 1 yellow, 2 white, 3 black, 1 purple. The number of black and white dice can get quite ridiculous at higher levels: it’s quite possible that an action card will add 2 black, the defender will chuck in 2 black from cunning points, and the attacker will then throw in 2 or 3 whites from blessings, fate points and other situational benefits.

My question is whether all these extra white and black dice can be just cancelled out, so that the dice pool ends up with the final number of excess black/white dice. This would be particularly useful for higher levels and more complex fights, and hints at a language of skill challenges that is much simpler to express. To explore this possibility, I simulated 10,000 attacks with a basic melee weapon for a fighter of strength 3-6, and checked the average damage and success rates, using two different methods of dice pool construction. In one method, black and white dice were added to the pool and rolled together; in the other, only the net number of dice was added. For all attacks the defender was assumed to be defending actively, with 2 points of armour defense (total defense 3); the attacker had 2 fortune dice. I assumed a total soak of 0 so that I could calculate pre-soak average damage, and used a hand weapon to calculate damage. Table 1 shows the mean damage delivered and the chance of success for both methods of calculating the dice pool, for the four strength values.

Table 1: Outcomes from two dice pool construction methods, basic Melee Attack

Strength Success probability Mean damage
  All dice Excess dice All dice Excess dice
3 0.51 0.52 4.50 4.50
4 0.63 0.65 6.30 6.40
5 0.72 0.75 8.14 8.43
6 0.80 0.84 10.09 10.46

It should be fairly clear that there is very little difference between the two methods, and that even at very high strengths the difference in damage is minimal (less than 0.5 wounds on average). The same differences in probability of success would also apply to probability of observing at least one boon (since boons and banes cancel on black/white dice in equal measure with success/failures).

Repairing combat hit probabilities

Note also the huge increase in chance of hitting as strength increases – and this is without adding additional training or reckless/conservative dice. In reality a strength 6 fighter will have additional training and fortune dice, and will be close to a 100% chance of hitting in combat against someone with a standard defense card and armour. This high probability of hitting is also independent of the target’s physical characteristics: the only way a standard PC can up their defense is to get better action cards and to buy better armour. In WFRP3 the only skill check that is largely independent of the target’s attributes is the key attacking check!

I think this could be fixed easily by making the difficulty of hitting a target dependent on their physical attributes. We can introduce a simple language for converting difficulty into dice pools, and generate difficulties as follows:

Target difficulty=attribute+defense-total fortune

This can then be converted into dice pools by dividing by 2; the result is the number of challenge dice, and the remainder the number of misfortune dice. For combat, the base attribute can be agility and people can swap this for toughness or strength if they have a suitable talent and they are carrying a shield and heavy armour (toughness) or a weapon (strength).

In combat, for a person with agility 3 this is equates to the same difficulty as would occur in the standard system when they have the dodge action card. A person with agility 1 would actually be easier to hit than in the current system, but such people basically don’t exist. A fighter with agility 4 would be as hard to hit as a fighter with advanced dodge in the current system. This would be particularly liberating for the GM, since he or she could essentially dispense with tracking aggression and cunning, as well as defense cards for everyone. Although the increasing difficulty of attacks would mean combat took more rounds, the reduction in management (of cards, recharge and dice pools) would significantly speed up each round.

This change would also put magic and combat on a more equal footing. Many magic attacks are challenged by the target’s attribute, which means that in general their difficulty is likely to be higher than 1 challenge die. Since magic often does less damage than combat attacks, this significantly reduces its effectiveness.

With these considerations I think I have now developed a rounded idea of how WFRP3 can be simplified into a streamlined high fantasy system. Now I simply need to put it all together in order to start using it.

Following my analysis of success probabilities in Warhammer 3rd Edition (WFRP3) my next task is to analyze some of the major action cards, and identify whether fiddling with action cards brings any particular benefit to the game beyond different names for attacks. Before I do, I should note that there are only really a few different kinds of action cards:

  • cards which appear to do more damage (like Thunderous Blow and Troll-feller Strike), usually with extra risk
  • cards which enable the PC to use a different skill to attack with (e.g. Chink in the Armour, Nimble Strike), sometimes with less damage
  • cards which induce some kind of combat-beneficial circumstance (e.g. Cut and Run) or cause an ongoing condition (Cruel Strike)

I think the second type of card are obviously worth having, since they enable PCs with poor combat traits to occasionally engage in melee attacks. The last kind of card may also be valuable, depending on the benefit they give the player or the condition they induce; but often the benefit is small or could be easily handled by sensible GMing (e.g. disengage for free). I think many of the effects given in these cards could probably be made available to PCs as talents with no loss of complexity or great unbalancing of the system. For example, Chink in the Armour enables a PC to use their Observation skill to attack. We could probably make this a talent available to a wizard if they want to spend the experience points on it, but it would be unlikely to unbalance the wizard class – no wizard can slug it out for more than a round in melee combat against anything nastier than an orc, and giving them the ability to use their observation skill to attack isn’t going to help if they can’t defend and don’t have armour or toughness worth speaking of.

My question is whether the first kind of card – the ones that supposedly enable fighters to do extra damage with savage attacks – is worth using. I investigated this by simulating 10000 implementations of the Basic Melee Attack and the Thunderous Blow action cards, for fighters with strength scores ranging from 3 to 6, in both reckless and conservative stance (one deep). I chose Thunderous Blow because it has side effects (fatigue) and (at least in reckless stance) is potentially savage, enabling the fighter to double their weapon damage if they roll well.

For all simulations in both stances for both cards I calculated the probability of successfully hitting and the average damage done (for all hits, not just successful hits). I then expressed the difference between the cards in two ways:

  • The Odds Ratio of a successful hit for the Basic Melee Attack relative to the Thunderous Blow card; that is, the odds of hitting with basic melee divided by the odds for the Thunderous Blow. This should be greater than 1, since the Thunderous Blow card is slightly more difficult
  • The difference in mean damage done between the two attacks; negative means the Basic Melee did less average damage, positive means more

For all attacks the fighter had a great weapon (7 damage), one fortune die and one rank of training; and the enemy had defense of 2, soak of 6; and was assumed to be parrying (+1 defense). Fatigues were calculated but are not shown here.

For all attribute scores (ranging from 3 to 6), the odds ratio of a successful hit was almost exactly 1 in reckless stance, and only slightly below 1 (usually between 0.9 and 0.95) for conservative stance. This indicates that the basic melee attack is basically just as likely to hit as the Thunderous Blow, though the Thunderous Blow supposedly does more damage. Figure 1 shows the difference in mean damage for reckless stance (black line) and conservative stance (red line). This means that in reckless stance Thunderous Blow does more damage (negative difference) on average, while in conservative stance it actually does less damage.

BasicMelee vs ThunderousBlow

It is clear that the difference in damage in reckless stance is not great, and the benefit of hitting slightly more often in conservative stance does not make up for its weaker damage. In reckless stance the difference in damage across attribute values is not large, and probably not worth the risk of extra fatigues that are inevitably incurred in this stance with this card.

This analysis suggests that the fluff and crunch of having an extra combat card doesn’t deliver much benefit to the player. This card can be deployed once every three rounds for an extra 0.6 – 0.8 wounds of damage, at the risk of extra fatigue; or for less damage and the risk of delay in conservative stance. Is it worth spending an xp point on? As an alternative, this fighter could have spent that 1 xp to get this action card on either a fortune die for an attribute; an advanced parry card; an extra wound; or a talent that would deliver a constant and significant benefit in combat (talent cards can be pretty good). This card also requires you to give up a shield (it requires a two-handed weapon); it’s likely the benefits would be even smaller for similarly “reckless” and “beneficial” cards that applied to a one handed weapon.

This result is an example of several problems that I think arise from action cards:

  • They constrain the GM’s creativity: in responding to the rich range of options provided by the dice pool system, the GM is able to come up with all sorts of interesting outcomes (these are hinted at on page 55 of the player’s handbook); however, the cards tie the outcome of dice rolls to strict effects that really in the end could just be summarized as “+1 damage” or “you get a free manoeuvre.” Thus a lot of effort goes into building dice pools for limited benefit
  • They are unbalanced and unrated: most combat action cards have no rating but, for example, the Rapid Fire card is awesomely vicious – you can kill a great many PCs with that card – while the Thunderous Blow card does an extra point or two of damage and the two weapon cards are weak. Combat action cards need to be rated like magic cards, but they aren’t; and many are just fancy names on a small amount of additional damage
  • They squeeze out talents: a PC can hold as many cards as they want, but can only slot two talents at a time. So players have to choose action cards of limited benefit, while missing out on talent cards that could really reward them

I think then that a better solution would be to give each character class a small number of usable actions, probably support action, that are deployed more like spells; for example the thief could have “assess the situation” which is actually really effective; while the fighter could have some kind of leadership or defense card. Then all other benefits gained with increasing xp could be expressed as talents that reflect bonuses, outcomes and new success lines that the PC can deploy in normal rolls. There could then be a system in which fighters are able to take a fatigue to add a fortune die whenever they want to any attack; and similar benefits for other classes in other ways. This would make PC management simpler without significantly affecting the total level of violence that any one PC was able to direct during battle. It would also remove the complexity of recharge tokens, and make character management enormously simpler. This can all be achieved by stripping WFRP3 down to a system like the (related) Star Wars system.

As it stands, WFRP3 has very poor management of difficulty levels and bad probability distributions, and the cards aren’t much value. I still really like the dice system, but I think the way difficulty is conceived and the probabilities of success that derive from this, as well as the action card system, could be significantly improved. From here I am going to begin developing methods to improve these aspects of the game.

 

Recently I have been examining dice pool mechanisms in Shadowrun, to compare two methods for resolving opposed skill checks. In those posts I have found that for opponents with equally matched skill the probability of success tends to nearly 50% as skill increases, and that skill checks based on target numbers lead to sudden changes in success probability due to rounding error. In this post I thought I would examine the same problem in Warhammer Third Edition (WFRP3).

WFRP3 also uses a dice pool system, but it is much richer than other dice pools, being composed of seven different kinds of dice. It also doesn’t use the same dice for attacker and defender: the attacker adds some purple “challenge” dice to his or her dice pool, with the number dependent on the target attribute of the defender. The standard rule for determining this number in WFRP3 is:

  • Defender’s attribute is less than half the attacker’s: 0 dice
  • Defender’s attribute is less than the attacker’s: 1 dice
  • Defender’s attribute equals the attacker’s: 2 dice
  • Defender’s attribute less than twice the attacker’s: 3 dice
  • Defender’s attribute more than twice the attacker’s: 4 dice

This leads to some obvious problems: if you have an ability score of 8 and your target has an ability score of 8, the difficulty of your attack is 2 challenge dice; but this is the same difficulty if both of you have attribute scores of 4. So as your skill increases, your chance of success against someone with your own skill level increases markedly. Also, if you have an attribute score of 2 you will face the same difficulty on your check for all opponents with a score of 4 or more. You have the same chance of success whether your opponent is just slightly above average (4) or of god-like power (10).

I have considered two alternative ways of setting the difficulty based on the defender’s attribute: a number of challenge dice equal to half the attribute rounded down; and a similar method, but with the half value converted into black dice (so that someone with an attribute of 4 gives 2 challenge dice; while someone with an attribute of 5 gives 2 challenge and one misfortune dice). I have simulated the results of 10000 challenged skill checks – using only attribute dice – for skills from 2 to 6, against various defender attributes, using all three methods.

Figure 1 shows the probability of success using the standard rules described above, i.e. with difficulty set by comparing attacker and defender attributes. The high probability of success regardless of defender attribute is obvious for large attribute values, and the plateau effect at higher defender attributes is also visible.

Figure 1: Probability of success for various combinations of attributes, standard rules

Figure 1: Probability of success for various combinations of attributes, standard rules

For an attacker with an attribute score of 6, success is highly likely (about 80% chance!) even against targets with the very high attribute score of 8. Conversely, a wimpy attacker with an attribute score of 2 can be expected to be successful against anyone with attribute of 4 or more about 10% of the time – even if their attribute is 8. Remember, in WFRP3 a score of 8 in an attribute is almost impossible for a human, and mostly the province of giants and dragons. This means a party of 1st level mages could attack a giant and actually do physical damage against it! And this is before including stance dice, training, etc. A human with an attribute score of 6, a fortune die on that attribute, and two ranks of training could reasonably expect to hit a much more powerful opponent pretty much every time, unless that opponent burns through defense cards, cunning, etc.

Figure 2 shows the probability of success for various combinations of attacker and defender attributes using a system in which difficulties are set at one challenge die per 2 points of attribute.

Figure 2: Success probability for difficulty set at half target attribute

Figure 2: Success probability for difficulty set at half target attribute

This chart shows that probability of success declines with increasing target attribute score for all levels of the attacker’s attribute. It also doesn’t show the jagged pattern arising from rounding error that we saw for target numbers in Shadowrun or Exalted; rather, it plateaus for odd attributes. Note the generally high probability of success; a person with attribute of 6 can expect to beat someone with attribute of 8 about 80% of the time. This could be easily adjusted by making the base difficulty of all checks 1 challenge die; then all success probabilities in this chart would shift two steps to the right.

Figure 3 shows the probability of success when we eliminate the rounding effect by turning half points of attribute into misfortune dice. Under this system, the remainder from dividing the target attribute by 2 is turned into a misfortune die. The overall pattern is similar to that of Figure 2 but we see a smoother trend with rising ability.

Figure 3: Success probabilities without loss due to rounding

Figure 3: Success probabilities without loss due to rounding

This is a very smooth success curve, with somewhat high overall success probabilities and no unexpected values due to rounding error. Furthermore, the probability of success against someone of equal attribute score decreases as attributes decrease, which I guess is what one might expect as one watches increasingly amateurish people trying to thump each other; in contrast, in Shadowrun and Exalted this probability tends to 0.5 as skills increase.

I think then that my final recommendation is to set difficulty for skill checks at 1+(defender attribute)/2, with the remainder from the division converted to misfortune dice. This will reduce the success probabilities compared to Figure 3 but retain the smoothness and other properties shown in that chart. For games where you want the PCs to have lots of success, make the base difficulty 0; for really challenging, gritty games make it 2.

By setting difficulty in this way and using challenge dice that are different to the attack dice, the WFRP3 system is able to generate a sophisticated and realistic set of probability results. Unfortunately, the method for setting difficulty provided in the original rules doesn’t take advantage of these properties at all, and should be revised.

Approaching the crypt at dusk

Approaching the crypt at dusk

When last we left our PCs they had cleared out a goblin nest near their onsen, at great personal cost to Azahi the Troll-slayer, and put paid to a potential threat to their new demesne. Upon returning to the onsen they were called back to Separation City by Baroness von Jungfreud and, after a day of rest and healing for poor Azahi, they returned to town. This time they took with them Grunstein, the Jade order mage, who had recovered from his case of hideous Blacklegge disease.

When they returned to Separation City Baroness von Jungfreud arranged to meet them for a picnic, perhaps her last of the spring. As is typical for such a notable’s picnic, she had brought with her several servants, a fire to cook upon, and even a small tent beneath which to retire from the sun. She had also brought with her a scraggly, wild-eyed man in a battered hat and leathers, who traveled under the name Gregor Thorveld and claimed to be one of that rare and feared breed, a witch-hunter. Judging by his nervous manner, continually jittering eyes and uncertain speech he was either constitutionally a coward, or had seen far too many witches.

The Baroness's servants prepare the picnic

The Baroness’s servants prepare the picnic

Baroness von Jungfreud told the characters that there were rumours of disturbance in the graveyard, that one of the graveyard guards had been ambushed with a rusty old arrow and that she wanted them to investigate. The graveyard had been used to bury the victims of the recent plague – about 50 to 100 in all – and she was worried that the PCs had failed to kill off all the plague cultists. Perhaps one had stolen back into the graveyard and was hiding there amidst the corpses of his victims? When asked why the victims had not been burnt, Baroness von Jungfreud somewhat sheepishly confessed that in fact the town Physician had overseen the burial … that same town Physician, of course, who was working for the plague cult. Thus all the groundwork had been laid for even a minor functionary of the cult to dig up some hunk of ghoulpox’d rotten corpse and dump it in the water supply – again.

It was then that she introduced Gregor, who she assured them sternly would help them to make up for any mistakes they had made in eradicating the cult. Through clenched teeth they introduced themselves, and discovered that he had come to Separation City on the strength of rumours of chaos and murder, and had offered to aid Baroness von Jungfreud as part of his role as a witch hunter. The town currently lacking any sturdy fighters, she had agreed to take him on and would send him with the PCs. Although she was dismissive and hypocritical about the responsibility for the plague cult survivor, she did give some implicit indication that she understood her responsibility – she offered them 5 gold coins each to clear the graveyard, a huge amount for such a simple task. Assured of reward, they set off immediately.

Separation City graveyard is separated from the town by some distance, and set on a hillside that backs onto the forested mountains beyond. It is surrounded by the typical wall that surrounds any Steamlands graveyard, about 4 metres high and designed to be hard to scale from the inside. This graveyard had two entrances, one main entrance facing the Iron Ring section of town (distantly visible to the south) and one, higher up along the wall near the end of the cemetery, that was much smaller, much less secure, and opened to a small path that led to a “secret hot spring,” a hot spring that has no real facilities and is used in the open air by anyone who cares to visit. Why this was located in the graveyard was a mystery to everyone, but the PCs immediately recognized the risk – the plague cult seemed to have a thing for causing trouble in hot springs. They had the town guards bar the main gates and set forth for the hot spring. By the time they had arranged all the details it was dusk, but they didn’t let this deter them, and approached the spring.

The spring itself was just a small pool, perhaps thrice as long as it was wide and large enough for four people to bathe together. On one side was a rundown shack; on the other, thick bushes. As they investigated the spring Grunstein noted a disturbance in the Winds of Magic, and was able to warn the rest of the group before a spirit manifested over the pool and drifted forward to the attack.

The battle was over quickly. The spirit attacked Azahi but could not harm him, and the four of them soon dispatched it, though its ethereal form made it hard for their weapons to hit it. Finally Grunstein’s magic dart destroyed it, and it drifted away in a cloud of sparkling motes. The place from hence it had come was now revealed to be an opening in the woods, with a narrow and overgrown path leading further up the hill. This path had obviously been hidden by some kind of illusion that the spirit’s presence maintained; with the spirit gone they were able to see the path. The path itself had obviously not been used for a long time, and was covered in vines and brush. Somewhere down that path in the gloom, Laren thought she saw movement. After a pause to gather their thoughts, they plunged into the path.

After about 30 metres the path veered left and out of sight beyond thick brush. As they approached the corner two skeleton archers emerged from the shadows of the trees ahead. One fired two arrows at Azahi in rapid succession, hitting him in chest and shoulder; the other did the same at Gregor, hitting him once. Laren returned fire and they charged into battle, again rapidly destroying their enemy. These enemies carried arrows that appeared similar to those described by the graveyard guards. Obviously they were getting closer.

Moving further along the path after only the briefest of pauses, the characters saw a rundown and overgrown crypt ahead of them. Laren approached stealthily, finding the door open. From within came the smell of roasting flesh and incense, accompanied by a querulous voice chanting rhythmically and beating some form of small drum. As the others cautiously approached she moved to the doorway and looked in upon a horrifying sight.

The inside of the crypt contained a large sarcophagus at one end, and several smaller sarcophagi upright around the walls. Hanging from one of these on a portable umbrella hook was a coat and hat. On the main sarcophagus was a collection of magical paraphernalia: burning incense, a silver dagger, some gems, candles, a shrivelled newt. Facing them but some distance away stood a tall, angular man in a perfect threepiece suit, fob-watch in pocket, monocle in one eye. In front of him was a strange device, a kind of travelling lectern such as some preachers or musicians sometimes use, made of polished brass and obviously quite expensive, robust enough to hold a large book from which the man was reading. Between this scene of scholarly fastidiousness and the somewhat chaotic collection of magic items on the sarcophagus a magic circle had been painted on the floor in blood. Inside the circle a small child roasted on a spit over a small fire, still vaguely alive and burbling and gasping its last horrified breaths. A small skeletal familiar turned the spit rhythmically.

Laren gasped in horror and opened fire on the wizard. As he turned to face her, hideous beasts materialized from the gloom. Two crypt ghouls came prowling out from behind the sarcophagus and shambled forward to the attack; a darker, more terrifying spirit form coalesced near Laren and drifted forward to strike at her. Battle was joined. Gregor moved forward to take a shot at the ghouls but was so horrified by what he saw that he turned and fled. Azahi charged forward to attack the ghouls but was also shaken by the horror of the scene, and so terrified of the undead and enraged that he opted instead to strike at the wizard. As he did so a ghoul leapt on his back and began gnawing at him, digging closer and closer to his jugular with its teeth. Overwhelmed by the terror and burdened by the weight of magic and beast, he fought poorly and increasingly desperately. Grunstein helped as he could, his powers bolstered by drawing on a shard of wyrdstone that lay on the sarcophagus, but he had to leave to support Laren as she withdrew across the overgrown path. She and Grunstein prepared to sell their lives dearly in the gloom of the path, facing up against the Cairn Wraith and one ghoul. Grunstein was close to death when Gregor, regretting his flight, returned to the fray and helped to dispatch their enemies. Inside, Azahi managed to slay the wizard, shake off the ghoul and destroy it; but so desperate and exhausted was he that he simply sunk to the ground, hand gripped around his falchion blade so tight that it bled. The others flocked to him and helped him back to himself, but he would never be the same again.

They destroyed the magic items and looted the bodies. On closer inspection the wyrdstone Grunstein had been using was discovered to be that most foul substance, Warpstone, obviously being used by the necromancer to fuel his foul rites. Grunstein investigated the book from which these rites were read and found it was a speak with dead spell; the necromancer had been planning to raise the ghost of a resident of this crypt. Such a terrible book and such an evil substance would need to be destroyed, and not just in the local Sigmar temple – a journey to Heavenbalm would be necessary soon to destroy such abominations.

Notes on the necromancer’s body suggested he was looking for a member of the Family Azeem, who were buried here. This family ruled Separation City until the von Jungfreuds arrived 12 years earlier, and the necromancer’s notes suggested that the person he was attempting to bring back from beyond had been murdered by the von Jungfreuds. He had traveled here from Heavenbalm to find out something about the past in Separation City, and he was not alone; he was a member of a clique based in Heavenbalm, who met at a tavern there called the Seventh Banner.

Now the PCs began to wonder – was there something special about Separation City? Why was it that all these people had an interest in this town? Twelve years ago the von Jungfreuds had come here, and had been willing to do murder to take control of the town. How had they been able to arrange their possession of this town and why? How come this tomb was so forgotten and hidden? Then, was it a coincidence that a powerful disease cultist based in Store – the mysterious “F” – had sent a strong disease cult to overwhelm the town, coincidentally using von Jungfreud as the centre of the plot and killing her husband? And why was this necromancer here trying to turn up secrets from 12 years ago?

The PCs realized that there was a mystery about the town, and that it could be answered only through investigations in Separation City, Heavenbalm and Store. Since they had an evil book and warpstone to destroy, there next course of action was obvious – they would travel to Heavenbalm to the temple of Eight Banners, to destroy the book and the stone; and while there they would hunt down this necromantic clique, and find what it aimed to achieve. They would regret the day one of their number crossed paths with Azahi, Laren, Grunstein and Gregor …

A few mechanical notes: upon sight of the ritual all the PCs had to do corruption checks and several failed. Somehow Grunstein managed to use the warpstone four times and only incurred one point of corruption. By way of contrast, Azahi gained the frightened condition and once the ghoul attacked him he started incurring serious fatigue and stress, ultimately accruing four temporary insanities – one of which was permanent. This battle was a very close-fought thing indeed.

I GM’d session 7 of the Steamlands campaign on Saturday (report to go up shortly), with an old friend from London joining for the day. The session was essentially an extended encounter with two rally steps and three ferocious battles. This was an in-between session, setting up some story elements and run to enable my old London player to give WFRP3 a whirl without having to spend $200. In discussion with players afterwards a few things became apparent:

  • WFRP3’s stress/fatigue/insanity mechanism can be quite nasty
  • A long encounter (in this case a four hour session had probably three hours devoted to the encounter) can be exhausting for everyone
  • Some magic is really under-powered
  • Diversity in combat action cards doesn’t in practice produce anything

I’ll talk about some or all of these points in time, but for now I am interested in the last point. We had three types of combatant – Troll slayer, scout (archer) and witch hunter (both). In all cases, they deployed a variety of action cards, and pretty much all of those action cards end up with the same results – damage ranging from normal to +3, and occasionally a free manoeuvre.

Given the lack of diversity in outcomes, I’m wondering if combat-based action cards aren’t a complete waste of time. Not only do the different cards produce very similar outcomes, but the use of cards restricts my creativity to do interesting things with the dice pool. For example, if the card has a line for two boons and a comet, we all expect those lines will be used. But the two boons often produce results that the player doesn’t want, or that don’t matter in the context (especially e.g. a free manoeuvre when you don’t need to manoeuvre, or healing fatigue when you don’t have any). However, if we were just using a straight attack with dice pool, then I would set benefits according to the context – e.g. two boons means you get a fortune die on your next attack; three boons gives you an intimidate check to try and put a permanent misfortune die on their actions; a comet means the wizard’s spell is disrupted. Instead it’s just the cards. This would be fine if the cards granted diversity but they don’t.

So I’m wondering if I should move away from action cards altogether for anything except spells, and resort to just being creative with people’s attacks. I could introduce a very simple mechanic:

  • all fighters can select to use a fancy attack or a basic attack
  • Basic attacks get a free manoeuvre or remove one fatigue on two boons
  • Fancy attacks incur one misfortune die, cause fatigue on two banes, and get a context specific benefit on two boons
  • Comets and stars are at my discretion
  • All attacks get normal damage + number of successes if they are successful

I’m also thinking the talent tree idea I introduced in response to reading the Star Wars game might be a more interesting way of getting diverse outcomes in combat with less effort than action cards.

I might discuss this with my players in more detail.

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