Fantasy


Gank it!

Gettin’ robbed, Gettin’ stoned
Gettin’ beat up, Broken boned
Gettin’ had, Gettin’ took
I tell you folks
It’s harder than it looks
It’s a long way to the top
If you wanna rock ‘n’ roll

Our heroes stood in the smoking ruins of the abandoned railway platform, the two surviving gangbangers on their knees before them. As they took stock one of the two shuddered and passed out, all his remaining energy draining out of him as the combat drugs he had taken wore off. The other sat quietly on the ground, waiting his fate. Adam busied himself healing John and Jayden, and then while John kept an eye on their prisoner Jayden and Adam shuffled down the platform. At the far end they found a construction zone, separated from the platform itself with a temporary wall covered in DO NOT ENTER signs. The wall was riddled with bullet holes and the door hanging ajar, possibly broken open with a grenade. From inside they could hear heavy breathing and muttering. Assuming this must be Anansie, Adam called out a greeting and they cautiously entered the construction area.

They found Anansie behind an upturned cabinet, seriously injured and leaking from multiple bullet wounds beneath his armoured vest. Adam healed the worst of the damage and they helped him out of the room. As they passed the unconscious gang banger Anansie casually shot him in the head, but they managed to convince him not to waste the last survivor. Moving slowly under the burden of prisoners and injuries, they emerged from the underground into light evening rain, Jayden supporting Anansie and John escorting the gang banger. They all slumped against the nearest wall while Anansie put in a call to “a guy I know,” who turned up very soon after in a spacious van with tinted windows and menacing corners. Everyone piled in and they headed to Jayden’s apartment.

Jayden’s apartment was a shabby little one room carved out of a storage tank in an old water purification plant near the industrial end of Havensport. The water purification plant was no longer used for its original purpose, and its standing water towers had been converted into cheap apartment blocks. Piles of shipping crates had been stacked between them, and people lived in those too, though that lifestyle was barely better than squatting and Jayden, though dirt poor, still had the scrip to elevate himself above them. His room was one of a block of four that had been set up in the rear half of one of the water towers, walled off from each other with cheap drywall and opening onto the front third of the tower, which formed a kind of common area and laundrette. Rickety stairs wound around the tower and into this common area, which they trooped through armed and pushing their prisoner without attracting even a passing glance from the other residents. Either the residents were used to Jayden’s line of work, or they were all into the same business. Inside his room Jayden flung open the windows, revealing a view of looming chemical refraction towers, gestured for people to sit where they could, warned them away from the damp and mould on one wall, and handed around beers. The refreshing sound of cans opening set them all to relaxing, and after a moment to savour a cold beer after a hot day’s work, they all turned to look at their prisoner.

He was remarkably forthcoming, and told them all he knew. The Red Hand gang had a job out on Anansie, they didn’t know why, but all the lowest level squads were out looking for him. Their squad had been directed to his safe house by a higher up in the gang, a woman called Fay, but when they got there they found Anansie gone and the dwarf hacker and the orc dead. So they left, but later they got word that Anansie had been seen and they tracked him to the disused subway station. They went after him and were in the middle of the battle when suddenly their leader got a call – the prisoner doesn’t know who from but guesses it was Fay – warning them that the PCs were incoming. And just when they were about to complete the hit too! And the rest, as they say, was history. He couldn’t tell them why the Red Hand had a job out on Anansie, he was too low down the food chain to learn that kind of info, but no hard feelings and could they maybe see their way to letting him go?

They did, Jayden giving him a quiet word about bygones being most certainly bygones before kicking him out the door. Anansie then filled them in on some of the details. Havensport is the turf of a rival Triad, the Golden Dragon, and the Red Hand usually restrict their activities to a different part of New Horizon, but recently they had been mounting raids into Havensport and causing trouble for the Golden Dragon. Anansie is just a fixer, but he has it in mind to start working for the Golden Dragon too, or at least operating with their license in their Havensport turf, but to get such a market position he needs to present himself to the Golden Dragon leadership and he needs to be carrying a strong letter of introduction. His plan had been to form a team of independent runners and send them in to bust up a Red Hand drug factory that had been set up in Golden Dragon turf, and present its destruction to the Golden Dragon as his letter of introduction. Unfortunately the hacker and the street samurai he had intended to be in the team had been slaughtered by some kind of maniac when they came to his safe house, and he had been forced to run when he found the mess, which was why he had not been able to make it to his meeting with the PCs. His plan had been to offer the PCs to join the team he was assembling, and although his plan had been partially derailed by the killing of the hacker and the samurai, he was still up for doing it now before word of his inquiries into the drug gang got out. Would the PCs still be willing to do the raid? They would need to act quickly, because eventually the drug makers would learn of his interest, but if they acted in the next day or two they would surely have surprise on their side.

They asked a few probing questions. The drug makers were a gang under the control of a psychotic dwarven fire mage called Hui. Anansie did not know exactly where they were, but he had narrowed it down to a block of buildings up against the old section of New Horizon superstructure that separates Havensport from the Kwun Tong industrial district. He would pay them 12,000 nuyen as a group to go in, bust up the group, kill Hui and deliver all the drugs and gear to him. They would need to spend some of that on a hacker to help find the exact location, since the hacker he had intended to hire was dead. Once the job was done he would put in a good word for them with the Golden Dragon, so it would be a job with more than just financial benefits.

They agreed. They all needed the money, and none of them seemed particularly unhappy at the idea of busting Red Hand gang bangers after their recent run-ins. With that, Anansie gave them what info he had and disappeared into the night, leaving them to set up their run. Over the next day they acted fast, assembling gear and hiring a hacker to do a more detailed scout of the area they needed to go to. They also hired a getaway driver with a decent vehicle, and got their hacker to break into a cheap van they could use to get close. This took them longer than they thought, so they were only ready to go in on the second night after they rescued Anansie.

In a stroke of good fortune, that same afternoon a storm swept in over New Horizon from the sea, and their approach was cloaked in blinding rain squalls and darkness, the streets empty of bystanders or witnesses. They had found the factory in a building that rested right up against the border wall with Kwun Tong, a huge remnant fragment of the original New Horizon super structure that loomed over the area’s four- and six-storey buildings. This wall was honeycombed with tunnels and roads and even old building structures, and relatively easy for them to move through undetected. Once they reached the building next to their target Adam levitated them down onto the rooftop and they took up positions. John used his low light and thermographic vision to scan the rooftop of the drug house, finding a single guard standing desultorily in the rain. There was only one door onto the rooftop, and their brief reconnaissance of the building itself suggested that the floor below the rooftop was abandoned, with most activity happening on the lower two floors.

Jayden leapt across the gap between the buildings onto the roof of the drug house, and crept up behind the guard while John took aim. Their plan was simple: kill the guard and go down the stairs. John fired, killing the guard with a single shot, and Jayden drifted over to his body to check for access cards and other details. He dragged off a lanyard with a swipe card, and also cut off one of the guy’s fingers just in case they needed prints to get in, and was just moving towards the door to the stairs when Adam Lee, using his magical sight, saw a magical alarm trigger, and something come rising up through the building. The guard had been rigged to give a signal if he died, and the fire wizard had conjured up a fire elemental to clear the rooftop!

It appeared moments later, roaring to steaming life as it manifested right in front of Jayden, but thanks to Adam’s warning they were ready. John shot the thing, and Jayden was able to dodge its first attack. He struck back, but instead of doing any damage found himself engulfed with fire wherever his knife sunk in. He fell back, dodging a second attack, and let John destroy the beast with a second shot from his rifle. The creature disappeared screaming into the abyss, and the rooftop went quiet. Jayden, seriously injured just from standing near the elemental, ran back to Adam’s side, where he was healed, before running over to again take cover behind the door onto the rooftop. John took aim at the doorway and they waited.

They did not have to wait long before a team of men spilled onto the rooftop. The battle was short and brutal, with John picking off fighters from the next building over as Jayden moved amongst them, stabbing and hacking. When Hui emerged, steaming and hurling fire bolts, all three of them focused their fire on him and took him down before he could harm them. Jayden made sure the unconscious mage was permanently out of combat, Adam used his levitation magic to throw a guard over the edge, and the final guard gave up and fell to his knees begging for his life. With the benefit of surprise, darkness, the storm and John’s phenomenal sniper rifle they had made short work of six goons, a fire elemental and an insane dwarven fire mage. They collected themselves, gathered what information they could from their sole surviving enemy, and prepared to head down into the drug den …

Hiding from tomorrow
and hades wrapped in clouds
ride the breeze
so cold as ice

The faithful, the fallen
have faith to the ones with pride
the faithful, the fallen
and glance of day will never shine

We find our heroes at a moment of crisis. They have negotiated their way out of a tense and complex situation with a band of 20 knights of the Order of the Morrigan, an order of ruthless mercenaries who go to war in honour of their foul Fomori wargods. Although they have avoided slaughter at the hands of these evil folk, they watched as 10 of the knights departed in haste for the town of Crois Arald to hunt down the Fomori deserter that the PCs knew was hidden there. Having already hatched a suspicion that these Morrigan were somehow connected to the slaughter of those deserter Fomori, the PCs needed to get back to town quickly to help the lone Fomori hiding there. They took their leave of the leader of the Morrigan and headed as fast as they could back to the town.

Unfortunately the PCs were slowed down by two wagons – Xenobia of course rode in her noblewoman’s wagon, accompanied by her manservant Wagonsworth, and also by her maid Purple; but they were also slowed down by the wagon of a Korr called Percivole, who they had rescued from the necromancer[1]. So they were not able to keep up with the detachment of Morrigan, and by the time they reached the town the Morrigan had already begun to execute their search. They had begun dragging people out of their houses and forcing them into the central square, while some knights had fanned out to search more outlying buildings. In the center of the square a Far Daragh stood on a platform, massive sword in hand, red armour gleaming in the sun – Far Daragh are Fomori executioners, tasked with killing Fomori who have broken the strange and evil codes of that ancient and vicious race. No one was yet hurt, although they had beaten the sheriff unconscious when he tried to assert his authority, but it was obvious that if anyone resisted they would die. Worse still, the PCs knew that the Fomori deserter, Ilid, was hiding in a building on the southern side of the town, and the Morrigan were approaching it. They were accompanied by a Seacal, a kind of dog-human race that is renowned for its tracking skills. They had to act fast.

They split up. Ichimusai and Leantoir walked towards the main square from the east, to disrupt the rounding up of citizens and in hope of making a distraction. Xenobia and Korr parked his wagon on the road heading out of town, to block entrance to more knights from the north, and headed along a different road to the square in Xenobia’s wagon. Idril climbed a watchtower on the edge of town to get an overview of the area and be able to cast spells at anyone in the area. Fellan slipped into the shadows of the buildings and headed south to try and get to their Fomori deserter before the Morrigan.

Xenobia and Persivore reached the square from the northern road and began talking to the guards just as Ichimusai and Leantoir were stopped by three guards on the eastern road. Ichimusai was wearing a banner that proclaimed him “Ichimusai, greatest fighter under heaven”, intended as a challenge, but the Morrigan were not stupid enough to accept his challenge, so they stood in the road watching each other warily. Xenobia began asking the guards who stopped her what was happening, but as the conversation began the Seacal saw Fellan, and fired at him with a bow. The arrow struck Fellan hard in the side and as he fell the Seacal let out an unholy howl. Hearing that howl the Morrigan grabbed their swords, which Ichimusai interpreted as a challenge, and battle was joined. As the battle started the guards speaking to Xenobia panicked and, thinking her a normal noblewoman accompanied by her manservant, dragged her from her cart and into a nearby building for her own protection, one standing in the room facing the door as a guard while two more stood outside covering the door.

Xenobia waited until the guard’s back was turned and, gesturing to Persivole to draw his pistol, stepped forward, touched the man on the back of the head, and began to rip his soul from his body. He resisted, but the pain and damage was intense, and as he struggled he turned, wreathed in crackling black lightning, to face Persivole, his face drawn and withered, skin taught, veins standing out black and pulsing against unnaturally pale skin, eyes pools of black dripping tears of blood. Persivole shuddered and shot him in the face, blowing his head across the windows and walls and making a huge hole in the door. The guards outside turned in shock, not yet knowing what horrors lay inside that room.

Across the square Ichimusai and Leaintor went to work on their opponents, who acted first, attacking the huge and intimidating druid with their great swords and beating him near to death. Ichimusai killed one with the first swift and silent draw of his weapon, and Leaintor beat on another one. From the tower Idlir cast healing magic on both Leaintor and Fellan, who rushed towards the house where the Fomori was hiding. Unfortunately for everyone, as Fellan was rushing towards the house the Fomori emerged and ran towards the Seacal and one of her accompanying Knights, attacking them in a mad suicide mission. The other two Knights accompanying the Seacal had broken back to the square, hearing sounds of slaughter and gunfire.

Xenobia and Persivole stood in the room, waiting patiently for the guards to enter as Xenobia screamed for help and the Korr reloaded his pistol. Smoke and cordite mingled with the steely smell of blood and the strange, oily stench of dark magic. The guards rushed into the room and Xenobia hit both of them with a crackling nimbus of dark energies, rotting the flesh on their bones as they rushed in to come to her aid. Persivole shot one in the chest, blasting him back out of the door. He flicked the shell from his pistol and tried to act calm as the room filled with the cawing of distant crows and the stench of rotting corpses. Xenobia’s magic has a certain signature.

On the far side of the square Ichimusai and Leaintor pummeled on the remaining two soldiers, killing one and badly injuring another. Idlir stunned the knights facing Fellan and the Fomori as Fellan, dodging another arrow from the Seacal, charged into battle and struck the dog-man in the face with a powerful sweep of his longsword. Now the Seacal was injured and Fellan was whole, the tide of battle turning slightly towards the Sidhe assassin.

In the room Xenobia and Persivole shared a brief glance as Persivole dodged the surviving guard’s sword blow. Xenobia stepped forward and touched the Morrigan, striking him with such a wave of black power that his soul was pushed from his body whole, briefly appearing whole and intact and glowing pure and steady in the air of the room before turning black and crystalline, mouth opened in a silent scream of terror, and then dissipating on invisible winds of dark magic. Somewhere funeral bells rang and the room hung heavy and cloying with the smell of charnel houses and rose incense. Persivole, gagging, flung open the door and fired his pistol at a guard standing on the far side of the square. At the same time Ichimusai and Leaintor entered the square, Ichimusai leaping over one guard to land on the far side of the square facing the guards coming from the south.

Down the south road the Seacal dropped her bow and leapt at Fellan, attempting to knock him over and savage him but missing. Fellan pushed her down and beat her with both his swords, hacking at her head until she lay still and broken on the roadside. Then he and the Fomori set about the callous murder of the other Morrigan soldier while in the square Persivole, Leaintor, Ichimusai and Xenobia teamed up to finish off the remaining three Morrigan. Moments later the battle was done as fast as it had begun, 10 Morrigan and a Seacal dead and the party largely unharmed, except for Ichimusai who stood purring and swaying at the edge of the square, near done for under the weight of multiple sword strikes. Leaintor stepped forward and placed a gentle hand on the giant cat man’s arm, suffusing him with the glow of druidic healing magic. Xenobia moved to pat Persivole on the shoulder in a gesture of triumph, but he ducked away from her touch with an expression of horror. Behind them blood dripped off the windows, and whispering spirits subsided into silence.

They saw the citizens of the town back to their homes and negotiated with the Far Daragh, who looked nonchalantly about him at the ruins of the Morrigan, announced “Nothing to execute here” and walked away. Fellan followed him at a discreet distance, hoping to find out how the Fomori returned to their kingdom beyond the mists. Ichimusai fashioned a banner that stated “Your men were slain by ichimusai, unequalled under heaven” and planted it in the middle of the square. Hours later Fellan returned to tell them that the Far Daragh had taken a horse, and he had lost track of him, but before then the Far Daragh had met with the other half of the Morrigan force and told them about the events in the town. They debated whether to set up an ambush in the town, and finally decided to head out of town and lay an ambush in the hills to the east. If the Far Daragh’s report did not convince the Morrigan to seek vengeance on the party, Ichimusai’s banner surely would.

Before they left the town the Fomori deserter thanked them, and by way of thanks gave them a fragment of a diary she had found in the ruins of a church to the north east. This document described the final movements of a famous woman who had previously defeated the Fomori in an earth shattering war 300 years ago. The Fomori deserter thought that this letter might be relevant to the reason the Fomori had recently made war in this area – perhaps they were seeking the “memento” the woman mentioned in the diary. The characters decided that once they had killed the remaining portion of the Morrigan they would seek more information about the contents of this diary entry. Thanking the Fomori deserter, they headed out of the town towards the east, to set up an ambush for the Morrigan and lead them to a certain fate…


fn1: I completely forgot to mention this in the previous write up. Korr are a kind of dwarf-like race of engineers and grumps, and this Korr had been turned into a chicken by a trap in the necromancer’s lair, but when they killed the necromancer he returned to his previously slightly larger form. They recovered his gear and his wagon, and now he traveled with them

They stand together in our wildest dreams

We invoke the Fomori

Strangers with the eyes of men

And they fall from grace

And they fall from light

Two hundred angels

Black rain from the clouds

And they fall from grace

And they fall from light

Blackened forsaken tears

Snake down my face

The high order of the Fomori

The sons of god, they never dream

Strangers with the eyes of men

  • Lament of the Watchers

[Faustus’ note: We have played 3 or so sessions of Undriel, of which only the last two sessions I have joined, and for reasons unrelated to the game I haven’t been in the mood to do write ups. I’m catching up now with this brief summary of the two sessions I joined].

Background

The party consists of five members:

  • Ichimusai, a Milesian warrior who does not speak. Milesians are a type of giant cat-people, much larger than humans and hailing from a strictly heirarchical and warlike society
  • Leantoir, a human druid, a great bear of a man from a nomadic and empoverished background, who combines magic and a very big stick
  • Idril, a Sidhe Draoi priest. Sidhe Draoi are a type of forest dwelling ancient that resembles a humanoid grown from a tree. Imagine an elf that mated with an Ent.
  • Fellan Braeduth, an Aes Sidhe assassin with a very short fuse. Aes Sidhe are a more classic type of elf, though they’re of dubious morality and probably more Drow-like than one should be comfortable with
  • Xenobia, a human noblewoman, unwilling necromancer, who uses her powers to investigate murders, deaths and other unsavoury deeds

The land of Undriel has just recovered from a shattering war with a race of evil outsider-like creatures called the Fomori, who come in many forms ranging from the beautiful to the monstrous. The party are veterans of that war, who have teamed up to travel across the war-ravaged lands to a regional city. They have stopped at the town of Crois Arald, which sits at a crossroads south of the city they are traveling towards, and is beset by many troubles. Seeing the chance for fame and fortune, the PCs have decided to help the citizens of the town to deal with some of their problems.

In the first session (which I did not attend) they stumbled on a gang of Fomori and slew them without negotiating, in an orgy of spectacular bloodshed (or so I am told). They kept one survivor, who they handed over to the town guard. The next two sessions begin here.

Interrogating the Fomori

The Fomori proved to be a most accomodating prisoner, willing to answer all our questions without trouble, although the interrogation still took half of the session because we were so stupid and indecisive. She revealed that the Fomori gang they had murdered was part of a splinter faction of Fomori who had opposed the war and were fleeing east to the Kingdom of Reynes, which is offering sanctuary to Fomori who opposed the war. They were heading to a rendezvous point with the rest of the tribe, which would then take some secret faerie route to cross the oceans to Reynes. Unfortunately the PCs had murdered her gang and she was unwilling to reveal the location of the rendezvous point. After much debate they agreed that she was being honest, and let her go.

Bandit and bear

Having “solved” the “problem” of the pacifist Fomori the group decided to take on a clearer problem, a gang of bandits preying on caravans on the western road into town. They set up a simple trap consisting of a wagon decorated as a noblewoman’s wagon, with Xenobia riding the front of the wagon as bait and the rest of them hiding in the back, while Fellan stalked ahead. This trap worked beautifully and the bandits, unable to resist such ripe and easy fruit, attacked without plan or sense. The resulting battle was a vicious bloodbath, with half the bandits falling in moments and the other half cut down in the forested slope as they fled, one having his soul ripped from his body to power Xenobia’s dark magic and the other being gutted and left to die slowly. (Apparently a slow death from disembowelment is more civilized than being rapidly drained of your life essence by a necromancer!) They then followed the path to the bandit’s camp and killed the rest of them in short order. While they were searching the camp they were disturbed by an enraged bear because of reasons; Leantoir tried to calm it but this failed, so then Ichimusai cut the bear in half with one stroke of his katana.

Ichimusai is large, and deadly, and very very quiet. Xenobia likes him.

Dark magic in secret places

The PCs rested a little before setting out on their next adventure, a quest to investigate a group of caves near the town that had recently been declared off limits on account of their being the source of a plague or curse of some kind. They traveled to the area and found the caves, which lay inside a narrow culvert cut into some hills. Stone outcrops just inside this culvert bore marks in Fomori script indicating it was death to enter; intrigued and unworried, they entered. Near the cave entrance they found the bodies of two Fomori, who bore the same markings on their clothes as the pacifist Fomori the group had previously mercilessly slaughtered. Xenobia investigated the bodies and found that they were occupied by a strange dark magic that would animate them as zombies, and was able to disable the magic just before they rose. They appeared to have been killed by black magic, the same kind of soul-stealing weapon that Xenobia uses and marker of necromancy.

Concerned that reanimated corpses might be immune to normal weapons, Xenobia enchanted some of the group’s weapons with coruscating aurorae of shadows, which would disrupt the animating magic of any corpses they encountered. Ichimusai and Leantoir initially resisted this magic but finally consented, but expressed extreme distaste at the slippery, slightly greasy cold feeling it imparted to their weapons and the strange whispering of dying children that they heard whenever they swung their weapons.

Xenobia shrugged, and they ventured further in. Here they found more Fomori from the same tribe, some of whom animated and attacked them. They cut them down and proceeded until they found an inner cave where a necromancer was engaged in a horrific ritual, stitching together the body parts of dead Fomori to make new monstrosities that he perhaps intended to turn into an army. They killed the necromancer and his minions, though this battle was tough and his powers frightening. Behind the ritual cave they found a smaller cave where the necromancer slept and studied, in which they found a strange orb hanging in space, which was obviously some kind of communication device.

Obviously something big was going on here. It appeared that the pacifist Fomori tribe had been meeting here, and the necromancer had killed them as they gathered, though they could not identify his purpose. Some dark plot was being executed here, and it was obviously being coordinated from somewhere far away by someone powerful.

Tensions with the Morrigan

When the party emerged, covered in blood, from the caves they found themselves facing a large squad of Knights of the Order of the Morrigan. This order are a kind of elite military force among the Fomori, and this band had been wandering the local area looking for remnants from the war. They were led by a big soldier called Rumiel, but in their midst was a sinister black-robed woman called Aredhel. When they encountered the PCs a strange, tense encounter unfolded, in which they seemed somehow altogether too interested in the manner of the Fomori’s deaths, and altogether too aware of what might have happened here. At the same time the PCs immediately distrusted this group of soldiers, and tried to angle the encounter so that no one from the group managed to get inside the caves and see the clues of necromancy. No one could quite say why but we all had a suspicion that this band was connected to the deaths of the Fomori. Aredhel also expressed an intense interest in any survivors of the group, and the PCs immediately suspected she was looking for any pacifist Fomori who might be drifting through the area. During this encounter they managed to organize a formal cremation of the dead Fomori, and also managed to escape with their lives. Unfortunately the Morrigan somehow found out about their past prisoner, and sent scouts to town to investigate further. So after they had parted company with this band of ne’er do wells, the PCs also decided to rush back to town to see what they could do to protect their erstwhile prisoner.

And on this strange and confused note the session ended.

Flying in a blue dream …

Last week in Tokyo was Golden Week, the long week of public holidays that people traditionally use to travel. I stayed in Tokyo and chose to use one of the days to visit what I thought of as “the Mucha exhibition” at the National Art Center, Tokyo. This exhibition was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum, the 60th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, and the Year of Czech Culture, 2017, so I guess it was intended to be something special. I had previously seen a Mucha exhibition at the Kitakyushu Art Museum in Fukuoka, where I saw primarily a collection of his illustrations and advertising work, and I was expecting the same in Tokyo but perhaps expanded, so I was completely stunned when I walked into the first room and found myself facing an 8m x 6m canvas of luminous beauty, The Slavs in their original homeland, pictured above. In fact this exhibition was displaying almost all of Mucha’s Slav Epic, a collection of huge oil paintings describing key events in the history of the Slavic peoples, which he painted over an 18 year period (1910 – 1928). These pictures showcase incredible art nouveau technique, while displaying striking mythical figures and key historical events in splendid beauty, and their impact cannot be appreciated by viewing them on any screen. Take the picture above, for example: The god on the right of the picture must be 4 or 5 metres high, and the two human figures at the bottom centre are almost human sized. The god doesn’t just loom over the viewer, but seems to actually float out of the picture, and really dominates the space around the picture in a way that even the best onscreen rendering cannot picture. The glowing fires at the centre left also spring to life with an almost feral radiance when you view the picture in person, the stars actually seem to sparkle, and those semi-corporeal distant figures on horseback are vague and indistinct in just the way you would expect if you were standing before that god, looking into the real distance to see oncoming soldiers.

The other pictures in the series are similarly dramatic, and to stand near them is to feel as if you are part of the unfolding drama rather than a witness in an art gallery – and this despite the fact that, because it was golden week in Tokyo, this gallery was packed. The photo below, which I took in the area where photos are allowed, gives a sense of the scale of the pictures and the crowd at the gallery, and the way the pictures stand imposingly above even this many people. In some ways the crowd was a boon, since it forced one to move back from the pictures and view them from their proper distance, as well as helping to keep the scale of the images in perspective.

Let’s enjoy Red Square together!

I’m quite a fan of art nouveau – I visited the Tiffany Museum in Matsue when I lived there, and I’ve visited Mucha and other similar exhibitions before where I can. I know a lot of people probably view it as not real art – kind of effete and shallow, the way perhaps some people view the romantic poets or perhaps like the pop music of art, but I think it has an evocative beauty that also speaks of a rare period of time in history when our developed nations were not yet modern but were full of hope and idealism and looking forward and upward. I also think it reflects non-European influences and I appreciate its intricate connections with advertising and popular theatre, which gives it a kind of populism that I appreciate in art. It’s not as “experimental” as some of the other movements that came at the same time, and for that I think it gets frowned on, and I think some modern art critics probably don’t respect its simple enjoyment of classical or saccharine beauty (especially feminine beauty). But I think at its best it is able to capture something of the human soul or the desire humans have always had to find transcendent beauty in their surroundings, and I think it must have been really stretching the available techniques of the time to achieve that sense of liminal and supernatural beauty that it aspires to. If I ever had any doubt about just how well art nouveau was able to achieve these goals, Mucha’s Slav epic dispelled them. This series of works is a masterpiece, and a perfect showcase of all the best aspects of this style. Walking through the halls of the epic is like drifting through an art nouveau dream, full of diffuse lights and ghostly figures, radiant spaces, beautiful ethereal women and striking, tragic moments. After viewing these massive pieces there was a large collection of his other work but some of his famous pieces – like the four flowers – which would have been masterpieces if they had been shown on their own were anti-climactic after the gigantic dreamscapes of the main display.

This is probably the third really great exhibition I have visited in Tokyo. In 2007 I saw Ashes and Snow at a temporary space in Tokyo Bay, having no idea really of the scale of its content; then quite recently I saw The Universe and Art at the Mori art museum,  and now within a year I get to see this unique apotheosis of art nouveau. This is one of the really good things about living in Tokyo – it may happen only once a year and they may be very crowded, but the quality and global nature of the content is really high. This exhibition lasts until the 5th June, so if you are in Tokyo I strongly recommend getting along to see it. Even if you aren’t especially into this particular artistic form, I think it will capture you with its scale and ambition, and if you do appreciate art nouveau I doubt you’ll ever get the chance to see as good an exposition of its best qualities as you will when you visit this exhibition. So, go, and get lost in dreams of Slavic history.

She'll tear your heart out, and store up the pain for next time

She’ll tear your heart out, and store up the pain for next time

With the Spiral Confederacy campaign rolling to a close my regular gaming group is about to embark on a new campaign in a setting called Undriel, using a variant of World Of Darkness rules with Ars Magica type magical system. Undriel is high fantasy with a strong flavouring from Irish folklore. This is my character for the new campaign.

Xenobia was born the second daughter of a noble family in Garias, that rich and fated kingdom on the shores of the western isle that is rumoured to have had a long dalliance with dark magic and the Fomori. The particular name of her noble family is of no matter, because she has been cast out from them. Raised with the expectation that she would marry young, promised to a much older man in a marriage of convenience and politics, Xenobia rebelled against her gilded cage and ran away from home in her teens. Tricked by a handsome, mysterious older man from a lower-ranked family, she was lured into eloping with him with promises of adventure and love. Finding herself alone in his remote and cold mountain castle, she slowly began to lose her confidence and her happiness, as he set about systematically degrading and debasing her. Finally she discovered that all of the abuses and cruelties he visited upon her were part of a great ritual, in which he intended to break her innocence and then sacrifice her life on a dark altar to some great evil. At the last she slew him, but the backwash of dark magical energies released in his ineffectual and incomplete ritual washed over her and cursed her, soaking into her so that she suddenly became magically endowed.

Unfortunately this magical awakening was not a pleasant one. Stillborn in a dark ritual interrupted by murder and flight, her magical powers manifested themselves as necromancy and death magic. Xenobia is cursed so that she cannot easily cast any magic that is not based on death, fear, pain and darkness[1] – she is an unwilling necromancer. She can destroy flesh, conjure the spirits of the dead to fight for her, shroud herself in shadows and drive her enemies away in fear, but in order to heal an ally or to conjure a light spell she must suffer the pain in her own flesh. Over time Xenobia came to understand this curse, and during her sojourn in the lonely tower she crafted two magic items to help in her work. One, the burnt eye socket of her cremated former lover, stores damage or essence that she drains from others, that she can use it to restore wounds or injuries in herself or her allies; the other, a battered necklace of emerald, stores the pain she causes to others as a flash of light inside the gem, which she can then call upon the next time she casts a non-necromantic spell. By unleashing this stored pain she can, for that one spell, avoid the penalty of her curse. But if she does not harm others, she cannot store their pain, and must instead suffer that pain herself.

Xenobia has long since been cut off from her family, but she has retained the resources her dead lover had hoarded to himself, including his tower in the remote mountains of Garias. She carries herself still as a noblewoman, dressing elegantly and in the latest fashions and always acting with the etiquette and formality her status demands of her. Those who spend time in her company might notice that she lacks some of the airs and accomplishments of her fellow noble ladies, having missed finishing school and the finer lessons of court life while she wrestled with her curse and the awakening of her powers. Xenobia is also scarred, one side of her face permanently damaged by fire; every moon she casts a spell to renew the perfection of her appearance, and uses make up in the latest courtly fashions to ensure she remains perfect in form. When she casts her dark magics that scar briefly shows through the transformed flesh, revealing the ugliness beneath her courtly demeanour. However, aside from those times when she must hide away to recast the spell, Xenobia is to all outward appearance a normal minor noblewoman. She is pretty, young, slim and small, physically unopposing and apparently mostly harmless. This apparent weakness enables her to insinuate herself into positions where her rougher companions might not go – and belies the ferocious, destructive and unsettling nature of the magic that she carries into battle with her.

Xenobia travels the lands of Undriel seeking a cure for her curse, and a renewed purpose to carry her life forward now that she has been cursed with magic. Will she find that purpose, or will the dark nature of her magic overwhelm her, and draw her into the same evil that consumed her ex-lover? Only the Gods can know …


fn1: Manifesting in game terms as a 3 point flaw that causes her to suffer wounds, increased difficulty or greater spell use costs if her spell does not have one of these features, with the costs growing with the essence cost of the spell.

Save

Thongor say smash!

Thongor say smash!

Late last year I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a simple and stripped down sword and sorcery RPG. The session report for that adventure is here.

Barbarians of Lemuria is intended to provide rules for sword and sorcery adventuring in the style of Conan, the Lankhmar series, and Thongor, in a light and easy to play style. The game comes with its own setting, the mythical land of Lemuria, which has a long tradition in fantasy writing and film and is also the name of a great southern continent that the Victorians imagined existed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This land is mentioned in the Strange Tales fantasy magazine and is the setting for the books about the barbarian Thongor by Lin Carter. Barbarians of Lemuria expands on these vague historical and literary references with a map and setting information, so that in addition to rules for a quick and simple sword and sorcery RPG it comes with background information on a classic setting sufficient for running a whole sword and sorcery campaign.

The game is definitely light on rules and written for brevity and ease of use. In just 211 pages it manages to encompass all the usual RPG rules plus wargaming rules, setting, monsters, a brace of sample adventures, a random adventure generator, summary tables and character sheets. All the rules for task resolution and combat are squashed into 8 pages and are perfectly sufficient to cover most scenarios you need them for. Sample adventures are typically 2-3 pages including maps and background, and are really only rough sketches for a wide array of free form approaches to the general ideas laid out in them. Wherever possible the game attempts to capture the seat-of-the-pants risk taking approach to adventure from the sword and sorcery setting through loose rules and quick and dirty approaches to problems. For example, in the section on equipment they write:

… there are no rules for encumbrance. Heroes can go around with what they can carry. They live for the day. You never know what you will need on an adventure and you can’t take everything, so why bother? Use your hero points instead. That’s what they are for. If you want backpacks full of adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it around on, then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

I think that might be the best encumbrance rules I have ever read, and it gives a good summary of how normally picky technical details like armour, healing and so on are handled in this game. It’s a game to unleash your barbarian on the world, not to fiddle with spreadsheets.

The rules are very straightforward. Your PC has four attributes and four combat attributes plus four careers, all of which are ranked from 0 – 3 at the start. Skills are resolved with 2d6+attribute+career vs. a target number of 9 with simple difficulty modifiers; combat is the same with combat attributes in place of careers. Careers are things like slave, noble, barbarian, hunter, priest etc. and offer a bonus equal to the rank of the career in attempts to perform activities that can plausibly be related to the careers. PCs also start with a boon and if they want flaws and more boons; these give a bonus or penalty die on the 2d6 roll (like advantages/disadvantages in D&D5e), and Hero Points that have a versatile range of possible uses to make your character more effective. Some of the boons are classic sword and sorcery – for example Battle Harness turns your loin cloth or chainmail bikini into medium armour without the combat penalties of medium armour, while Missing Limb is exactly that, and comes with the rule “the game master will penalize you where appropriate.” In combat weapons do d6 damage, sometimes with a penalty or bonus die, and armour absorbs a bit of that.

Those are the whole rules – now you don’t really need to buy the book. Unless you want to enjoy the full richness of the boons and flaws and the deeply entertaining magic system, which really makes this game stand out. Magic is divided into four levels: cantrips and level 1-3 spells. Wizards have about 10-14 arcane power to spend, and spells come at increasing cost, ranging from 1-2 points for cantrips up to about 15 for level 3 spells. Wizards can reduce the cost of spells by meeting requirements, such as visible technique or taking a wound. These requirements grow in seriousness as the level of the spell increases, until at level 2 they encompass things like human sacrifice and serious injury. Level 3 spells (which can include making mental slaves and causing earthquakes) require a permanent point of arcane power to be lost. The spells themselves aren’t described – they’re up to the players and GM to negotiate – but examples are given to help with deciding the appropriate level of the spell. Also different levels of spell recuperate lost power at different rates – cantrips twice a day, level 1 spells at midnight, and level 2-3 spells just once a lunar cycle. This means that a wizard can start the game with a stupendous amount of power, but can’t use it often across a campaign. In my adventure our wizard used a couple of cantrips, one level 1 spell, recovered some of those points at midnight, then burnt all remaining points on a single level 2 spell. This means that having started the adventure with 14 points of arcane power he finished it with 0 points, and would only regain 8 of them within a day – another four would take up to a month to come back, and the remaining two up to two months. He also finished the adventure with the name of a demon tatooed on his chest and arm, seriously wounded and guilty of human sacrifice – all to power a great spell that failed.

There are also similarly simple but flexible rules for alchemists (who build things) and priests (who get divine favour). It’s perfectly possible to play these classes together too, so you can be a priest of some dark god, conjure evil magics, and build fire oil all at the same time. Monster rules are simple enough that four or six monsters can be fit into a two-page spread, including pictures and descriptions, and they are super easy to grasp. This makes the game really easy to pick up and run with in a short period of time – we started at 1pm, created characters from scratch and got through the entire adventure by 5:30 pm or so, going at a leisurely pace with lots of description and fluff.

This light-hearted and concise approach to rules really forces GM improvisation and encourages players and GM alike to plunge into the heroic, fast-and-loose style of sword and sorcery adventures. With very little time devoted to calculation, dice rolling and rules-faffing (even when new to the game) there is a lot of time and space for players to describe and improvise their PCs actions, and lots of time also for them to make heroic failures, make mistakes and retry things or go on different routes through the adventure. It really is a very good rule set for sword and sorcery, and a really good example of a game in which the rules, the writing style, the graphics and the setting all work together very well. This makes it a completely useless game if you want to pick it up and use the rules for anything else – you’d need to do some significant work to make a different setting feel right – and definitely not a game for people who like lots of crunch and detail in their gaming. But if you simply want to get rolling on an adventure with a barbarian, a druid and a beastmaster, then this is the game for you. It’s a refreshing, exciting contribution to the RPG world and a great sword and sorcery game, and I definitely recommend testing out if you want to play a swashbuckling barbarian campaign in a classic setting.

Strange summer lands

Strange summer lands

On the 30th December I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a sword and sorcery RPG with a simple engine and stripped down rules that I wanted to try out. This is the game report.

There were three PCs:

  • Kazaam, hunter and assassin from the lost Bone-Eye clan of the Beshaar desert
  • Batiz, shaman of the Bone-Eye, an alchemist, beastmaster and magician too old for combat or any vigorous activity beyond cursing, accompanied on all his adventures by his faithful skorpider
  • Zeddek, mercenary-physician from the Pirate Isles

The group of them had previously been on adventure, Kazaam and the Sea of Evil, in which Kazaam was sent to rescue a farmer from the lair of the Wise, where he had been taken for nefarious purposes by a merchant, who held the Sword of Hideous Death. Kazaam received this challenge simply because he was Kazaam; however, he managed to succesfully rescue the farmer, only to find the reward was less than he had hoped, but he was marked by the Gods for his deeds[1]. After this adventure, the PCs went carousing together in Malakut, and had been carousing for 9 days before finally they became bored and found themselves at a table in the tavern called the Red Empire, pondering what deeds of glory to attend to next.

Thus do adventures start: Batiz plucked his bone eye from its socket and shuffled over to the fire pit, over which a large lizard roasted on a spit. Squatting near the ashes like a savage, he dug into the skull of the beast with his knife and tore forth its roasting eye, which he stuffed into his own gaping eye socket and, with a roar of fear and joy, fell backwards to spasm on the floor, whereupon he suffered one of the rare visions his god sends him. He saw a rich woman and her bodyguard walking through one of Malakut’s many spice markets, strolling down an alley lined with sacks of spices in many colours, the floor a dusty carpet of variegated shades of powder. Suddenly men lunged from the shadows, throwing clouds of spice in the eyes of the bodyguard and dragging the woman away into the darkness beyond the stalls, tipping over a barrel of cardamom and pushing through a curtain of hanging saffron threads as they did so. The vision snapped away and with a squeal of pain Batiz pulled out the burnt lizard eye and hurled it into the fire. He returned to the table, pushing his bone eye back into its socket, to tell his fellows of his vision[2].

Recognizing a woman who needed to be rescued, the characters asked around, finally identifying the spice market where the attack had taken place by the hanging threads of saffron and the cardamom barrel. They rushed there through the narrow streets of Malakut on their war-ostriches[3], arriving in time to find the bodyguard, a woman called Damaya, standing despondent at the entryway. She told them that the woman was Raemis, daughter of a rich merchant who would reward them handsomely if they could rescue her from her abductors before a ransom demand was made. They needed no further prompting, and began searching the market. Finding no evidence of the footprints of the abductors despite the abundant spices scattered around all the floors of the markets, they asked amongst the stall holders. Finally one told them that there was a war ongoing between the Ragged Knaves and the Brotherhood of Shadows, and it was likely one of those groups had abducted her. The Ragged Knaves knew everything that happened in the markets, perhaps they should ask? So they asked around for the Ragged Knaves until finally they met a man called Juss who was willing to lead them to the Knaves’ leader, a beggar-king known as Jandor Hookhand.

Hookhand told them he had heard rumours already that the Brotherhood of Shadows had abducted Raemis, and he would tell them where the Brotherhood’s headquarters were for free, in hopes of receiving help in his war against the Brotherhood, who were slowly strangling his guild of beggars and street urchins. Perhaps they could reason with the Brotherhood leader, Zolat the Scimitar. The PCs headed off to the Brotherhood headquarters, a tavern called the foaming mug. On the way they were ambushed by brotherhood assassins, all six of whom they dispatched in short order before proceeding over the Bridge of Sorrows to the quarter in which they could find the tavern. As they neared, Batiz cast a spell on Kazaam’s hawk to enable him to see through its eyes, and Kazaam hurled his hawk aloft. They found a safe pathway to reach the headquarters without being noticed by its watchmen, and settled in an alley near the rear entrance of the Foaming Mug. Soon a messenger entered the tavern through that back door, emerging again accompanied by a man in a scarlet hooded cloak, who carried a scimitar over one shoulder. Guessing this must be the leader, they trailed him at some distance. Kazaam took the lead, following close to the pair. In fact his stealthy desert movements were so skilled that not only could he follow them closely, he could listen to their conversation and even sneak close enough to steal the keys on the messenger’s belt[4]. Listening to their conversation, he learnt that they were heading to a shop, that there was a demon guardian in the shop, but it would not attack them if Zolat stayed close to the messenger.

Kazaam followed until they were near the shop, taking a position with a view of the door. The messenger opened the door and Zolat entered first, the messenger stepping in behind him, at which point Kazaam shot him with an arrow. One shot killed the man, who fell dead inside the doorway. Kazaam ran forward and slammed the door shut, locking it from without using the keys he had pilfered. From within came yells and roars, strange flickering lights, and then silence. With one arrow Kazaam had slain two, and possibly three opponents. The rest of the party joined him and they opened the door, charging in to take on any survivors of the battle.

Zolat the Scimitar was dead, parts of him scattered around the shop. In his death throes he had overturned a shelf of herbs, and in the battle the decorations and contents of the apothecary had been damaged, but the demon had not been killed. It swarmed towards the characters, a horrific beast with the head of a carnivorous ape and a cylindrical body ringed with disgusting tentacles, the whole thing covered with a thick slimy apes fur. It was Vul’Mazzanlu, the Ape-Thing! Fortunately for the PCs it had been injured in the fight with Zolat, and they were able to kill it quickly. Batiz tore out its hideous tongue and they proceeded to the back of the shop, where stairs led down into a basement from which emerged the sound of chanting, and a flickering light. They had found their kidnappers, surely!

They descended the stairs to see a terrible sight: A large room with a magic circle in the centre, within which lay Raemis’s unconscious body. A triangle was drawn inside the magic circle, and at each point of the triangle stood a chanting acolyte. Smells of incense drifted out of the room along with the droning chanting of the acolytes, woven in with the strident calls and song of the master conjuror: Valtriz of Ill-Omen, who no doubt intended to use Raemis as a human sacrifice to draw forth some hideous demon from beyond!

Before they attacked Batiz consumed the demon’s tongue and used it to cast a cantrip of misdirecting sound, the screams and yells of an angry demon, to confuse the participants and delay the ritual. Then they charged into the room, to find themselves facing 9 more acolytes, Valtriz himself, and an evil assistant. Truly, a battle worthy of heroes!

They fought, Zeddek laying about himself at the acolyte rabble with slaughterous intent while Kazaam fired arrows at the tougher assistant, and Batiz threw acid at the chanting acolytes. However, they could not disrupt the ritual: after they had killed all the rabble defending the ritual Valtiz of Ill-Omen cast a paralyzing spell on all of them – twice! – and they were forced to watch in horror as the shadowy form of a greater demon began to manifest in the circle over the supine body of the helpless woman. Finally they were able to free themselves of the paralysis, and Zeddek killed Valtiz of Ill-Omen. Unfortunately he was too late, and though they managed to disrupt one of the acolytes it was not enough, and the horrifying demon Mazallakos of the Severed Veil appeared in the circle as the Acolytes called his name in adoration and fear. The magic circle snapped, and Mazallakos was free in the world!

They grabbed the nearest ritual weapons they could find and attacked the non-corporeal monstrosity, Zeddek hacking at it with a silver sword and Kazaam firing silver arrows. As they did this Batiz fell to his knees, tore off his shirt, and carved the name of the demon on his body from his chest along his arm; he called to Kazaam, who slew a fleeing acolyte and drained the blood onto Batiz’s shoulder, that he might work this human sacrifice into the carven name like tattoo ink; having done this he then consumed the eye of the Ape-Thing from upstairs, and called forth a mighty spell in the name of all the gods to bind this demon Mazallakos in place[5].

The great spell did not work! The demon was immune to even Batiz’s most desperate spells! But they did not give up, hacking at it with rage and abandon. The demon, perhaps not realizing how close they all were to spent, looked about itself at the dead conjuror and the room strewn with the dead bodies of acolytes, saw a mad mage eating a demon eye, felt the stabbing pain of silver sword and arrow, and perhaps decided that on this day discretion was the better part of valour. It disappeared in a thunder clap, preferring to retreat to some subterranean lair to nurse its wounds and gather followers, that it might decimate the living world in its own time.

They carried Raemis forth from that vile place and returned her to her father, who paid them handsomely despite the discovery that his daughter’s mind was partially lost from the demon sucking her life essence before they could drive it away. They left the compound of the merchant on their war-ostriches as dawn coloured the minarets and rooftops of Malakut with its first pink light. Burdened with treasure and exhausted from a night of battle, they paused at the heights to look over the town, and turned their faces to their next challenge: To find Mazallakos, and restore the rightful order of things by slaying him and any who followed him.


fn1: The Barbarians of Lemuria rulebook has a random generator for sword-and-sorcery adventures, and rather than try to figure out why the PCs were together I just decided they had adventured together before, and had them roll up the details of the adventure they had been on. I was going to give them advancement points for that adventure but decided not to bother; given the flow of events once the adventure started, I probably should have.

fn2: This was a level 1 spell, with the bone eye and the visible effects of the spell-casting counting as requirements to reduce the cost of casting it.

fn3: Actually called sandrunners, but you get the picture

fn4: The player rolled a 12 on 2d6 and used a Hero Point to upgrade from Mighty Success to Legendary Success, which proved incredibly useful a moment later

fn5: Batiz only had 6 arcane points left and binding the demon I decided was a second level spell, which costs 10 arcane points that can be reduced to 6 with requirements. For Batiz this was a) human sacrifice, b) permanent focus (tattoo), c) eating the demon eye and d) doing d6+1 wounds to himself [this is almost enough to kill Batiz].

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