Breaker reflects on sacrifice and vengeance

Breaker reflects on sacrifice and vengeance

In (my) final session of the Iron Kingdoms campaign, our heroes find themselves captive in the very underground complex they had come to explore. In this report I will describe the events leading up to Carlass’s death and final sacrifice. This isn’t the last session of the Iron Kingdoms campaign – I think there were two more – but I’m travelling and haven’t been able to join them, so I don’t know how the story resolved in the end.

Alyvia’s effort to elude capture by unleashing a surprise grenade attack had failed, but ensured the entire group a solid and effective beating for her troubles. They woke from their enforced unconsciousness in a prison cell designed for adventurers: shackled hand and foot with special silver-imbued manacles that electrified them whenever they attempted even the tiniest of magics, chained to the wall with similarly enchanted loops of tempered steel, and all their equipment taken from them. Carlass immediately released a booming signal call to Hrif the Younger, to warn him of her predicament; within minutes this earned her a beating from a huge Ogrun guard, followed by a steel gag that prevented her from fell-calling. They were entirely at their captors’ mercy, reduced to the status of mere mortals.

After an untold period of time their employer Catrina was taken away from them. She returned beaten and cowed, and told them that their captors had demanded all the information she had on the cave complex where they were being held; apparently the Ogrun were looking for something, and her mission was connected with it. They all assumed the same thing – that the Ogrun sought the steamspire. They would have to refuse to bargain.

The Ogrun, they discovered, were merely slave-wranglers for some darker and more sinister figure. This was some kind of monstrous or demonic wizard-creature, which was accompanied by a slim, lethal-looking hunter-demon that none of them could identify. They only saw these higher powers from afar when they were dragged out of their cave prison after a few days, and paraded in front of the leader of the slave-wranglers. They were dragged out of their hole into a huge, open cave that was a hive of mining activity. Gangs of wretched-looking slaves were being forced to-and-fro in the caves, and Ogrun wranglers treated them terribly as they were forced through the caves. Most were carrying mining equipment or pushing cars full of stone that was being dragged up from underground, but from the activity and the contents of the cars it was soon clear that no one here was looking for ore. They were digging for something.

The characters were pushed roughly before the lead wranglers and offered the same choice as Catrina. Since they knew nothing about her maps and workings, they could only refuse to assist with the slave-wrangler, who offered them freedom in exchange for knowledge of the maps. When they refused they were broken into two groups and driven off in chains to the mines. Carlass and Sharajin were put into one group, with Catrina, Alyvia and Captain Breaker forced into the other. Somewhere deep in the mines the groups separated, and they lost contact with each other. Their last message to each other was simple: escape, and find each other.

It was clear that no mercy would be shown to anyone in these deep tunnels. The slaves were being worked mercilessly to death, and when they collapsed were beaten savagely until finally they could work no more. Judging by the states of decay of the slaves, very little time was available to the characters to escape. Seeing this, and noting that in their chain gang there was a dwarf who was obviously a warrior of some kind, Carlass and Sharajin chose to act immediately. Their plan was simple: Carlass committed a minor infraction sufficient to attract an Ogrun with a whip, and Sharajin would grab the whip once it was uncoiled, using it to drag the Ogrun in and kill him. By engaging with him in this way she would ensure that the other Ogrun could not use his pistols. While she did this Carlass would use her pickaxe to free herself or Sharajin from their bonds.

The plan worked, but Sharajin was not strong enough to draw the massive Ogrun into the kill. However, as they began their plan the dwarf saw their efforts and attacked the other Ogrun guard, attempting to capture him in the chains. Carlass managed to free Sharajin, but they were outnumbered and she could not take on the Ogrun alone. In an act of desperation, Carlass put her face on the rock of the cavern wall and ordered Sharajin to break off her steel gag using the pick axe. Sharajin failed to smash the mask, but she also destroyed Carlass’s face, smashing in her cheeks and shattering her jaw into tiny pieces. Of course this was no trouble for Carlass: as Sharajin charged into battle, still manacled at her wrists and unable to use magic, Carlass hauled the intact mask over her now pliable face. She then set about her other manacles, as her face forced itself to heal. Screaming in pain, Carlass smashed her ankle chains apart as her face reformed to perfection. She turned from her efforts, free but still chained at the wrists, to find herself facing an Ogrun with a pistol. She screamed her fell call at him, but it had no effect. In response he shot her twice in the chest, and she was forced to regenerate again – the second time is always more painful than the first, and again she howled in rage as her broken body restored itself. By now however the tide had turned, and the last Ogrun broke and ran for the surface. They quickly freed the other slaves and the dwarf, who had killed her own Ogrun guard, and ran towards the fork in the tunnels where Breaker and Alyvia had been separated from them.

Things had gone better for Breaker and Alyvia during their escape, but in desperation one of their slave-wranglers had dragged down a portion of the roof before he died, and now water was beginning to flood the tunnel. This act of vindictive and petty destruction had served the Ogrun not at all, but revealed a spike of silver that Catrina begged them to take out of the wall. By the time they had dug it out the walls were collapsing, and they barely made it out alive. They reached the fork in the tunnel ahead of the rapidly-rising tide of frozen subterranean water. Everyone now rejoined, they fled up the tunnels away from the encroaching water. Once they were sure they were safe, they hid themselves in side tunnels to recuperate.

Over the next few days they hunted Ogrun slavers, killing them to take their gear and supplies. Only Carlass was able to eat, though – they could find no food, and none of the others were willing to feast on the bodies of their dead. They also could not find a way to break the manacles on their wrists, so could not use magic. After a few days of this, and getting increasingly desperate, they decided to get back to their equipment, and try to find a way to escape. Reconnaissance showed them a large cavern where their gear was kept, which could only be reached through a smaller cavern with Ogrun guards. They decided to act.

They lured the guards in groups into a tunnel, and killed them in this tunnel. Unfortunately, killing the Ogrun was tough and they forgot about the demonic hunter and its wizard-demon master; they thoroughly exhausted themselves killing the Ogrun, and so were standing, spent and desperate atop a pile of Ogrun corpses, when the demonic hunter arrived. After a moment to gloat over their predicament, it attacked. They were unready, and could barely fight for exhaustion. First it hit Carlass, gutting her with a single blow, before moving across to strike Catrina. Catrina was torn to shreds immediately, her body cast around the cave like so much meat. The beast then turned its attention on Breaker, but couldn’t kill him with a blow. The dwarf attacked it then from behind, but it knocked her back and nearly killed her with a single blow before returning its attention to Breaker. Now Carlass hauled herself upright, despite her massive injuries, as only a trollkin can do, and called down a desperate curse on the beast – a curse that channeled all her rage and all the desperate futility of her ancestors and her extinct tribe. Her curse reinvigorated Alyvia and Breaker[1], who were able to make a final desperate attack. Alyvia’s attack missed, but it distracted the hunter long enough to give Breaker the opening he needed. Even though all he had was a pathetic Ogrun scimitar, he managed to eviscerate the demon[2], and tossed its broken body aside to run to Carlass.

Carlass was done for. The remains of the group were staring helplessly at her body when a new force emerged into the hallway: the leader of the slave-wranglers and another squad of Ogrun. Our heroes gathered together and prepared to sell their lives dearly in a final hopeless battle.

Carlass and Hrif as they were

Carlass and Hrif as they were

The two squads were facing off against each other when they were interrupted by a huge howl of inchoate rage. The party recognized this howl – it was Hrif. He smashed his way through to them and grabbed Carlass’s body, lifting her pitiful corpse tenderly to his face, as if he thought it might not be her, or that his sobs and howls would bring her back. They did not, and it was her, and deep in his chest a kind of rumbling steam-engine sound began to stir. Our heroes knew this sound – it was the sound of Hrif’s rage. They began to back away. But the slave-wrangler didn’t know or care, and he sent his men to destroy the trollkin axer.

Our heroes took this moment of distraction as an opportunity to escape. They knew what Hrif would do once he was angry, and they knew there was no place for them here. They dashed past the battle as it began, heading for their equipment in the main cage. Behind them they heard screams, horrible meaty rending sounds, and the deepening cadence of a trollkin’s final rage.

When they returned from the cave, bearing all their gear, the Ogrun and their leader had been reduced to a black and red mess, but an even worse sight greeted them. The demon-wizard had returned, accompanied by strange spider-like guardians, and was taking great pleasure in slowly murdering the trollkin, piercing him with long, delicate spears that obviously caused supernatural pain. The trollkin was fighting back, screaming with rage and trying to strike at his tormentors, regenerating whenever they struck him, but the spider-like creatures moved too fast and would cut him without being touched. He was obviously doomed, and clearly didn’t care: he stood over Carlass body, tears streaming down his bloody face, huge axe dripping ichor, chest and arms splattered with his own and others’ blood, screaming his dying rage to the world. Our heroes saw their chance, and fled the cave carrying the silver spike while the wizard-demon was distracted. It took some time for Hrif to die, and they fled far along the tunnels to the sound of his slowly-weakening cries.

Finally they were able to escape into the sunlight, but they didn’t stop there. They kept running until they were too exhausted to go further, and then ran some more. Finally they reached their ship, only to find it under attack by pirates of the Scharde coast. They leapt aboard to command the defense, but now their spirit was only for flight. As fast as they could they lighted out of there, bearing the silver spike with them. Dawn of the following day found them making all haste over the seas towards civilization, tears streaming down their faces as they looked back at the island whose caves had nearly consumed them all. They had left behind two of their loved ones, and a deep and dark secret.

They vowed vengeance and, turning their backs to the island, sailed back towards the five fingers. The next time they visited the Scharde islands, it would be with a plan and an invincible force. From now they were steeled for vengeance…

Fn1: In consultation with the GM and the other players, we agreed that my curse restored one feat point to all the PCs who were still alive. We also – after some argument with the player responsible – identified that Breaker still had one feat point left, because he had miscounted a feat point he didn’t actually use earlier in the battle. This mean that all the PCs had one feat point to boost a single final attack, and Breaker’s player had two. The monster we were fighting was so thoroughly ferocious that these feat points were our only hope: if the attacks boosted with these points didn’t work, a TPK would follow.

Fn2: Against all the odds indeed, because killing this demon with a single blow would be almost impossible given its armour. But Breaker’s player rolled an 18 on 3d6, followed by a 17 on 3d6 (I think – anyway, two huge rolls). We all saw it happen!

Image credit: these pictures, again, by Breaker’s player Eddie.

 

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Recent conflicts in Iron Kingdoms (which culminated in my character’s necessary death) have introduced me to the fascinating problem of feat point budgets, and methods for estimating the optimal use of feat points. Basically in Iron Kingdoms every PC has three feat points (in Warhammer 3rd Edition these would be fortune points; I think many games have this system). Feat points can be used to boost attacks or damage (or for various other tasks), and in the case of trollkin for regeneration. They are regained through rolling criticals or killing enemies or through GM fiat. Thus expending a feat point to kill someone can be cost free. But you only have three, so expending them too early or in an inefficient way can be catastrophic (as my party discovered, to Carlass’s great cost!) So it’s important to decide where to spend them.

The combat system in Iron Kingdoms is very simple:

  • Attack: roll 2d6 + attack value, you hit if you beat the target’s defense
  • Damage: roll 2d6 + weapon power, all points greater than the target’s armour do damage

That is, you have a threshold for success followed by a threshold for damage, with results above the latter threshold being more important if they are higher. Typically an enemy will have between 5 and 15 hps you can knock down, so a good result on the damage roll can be fatal. However, the attack roll is 2d6 so small improvements in bonuses are very important when attacking high-defense enemies.

Feat points can be spent to add 1d6 to either of these rolls. Adding a feat point to the attack roll increases the chance of hitting, but can be wasted if your target has high armour; adding a feat point to the damage roll can do a lot of extra damage but only works if you actually hit.

This scenario has an equivalent in epidemiology: it’s called a double-hurdle model, and is commonly used for estimating models of health-care expenditure in situations without health insurance. The first step (the first “hurdle”) is the decision to spend money on healthcare – this is often voluntary and poor people won’t always make it. The second step is the amount spent, which is inherently random. Amounts spent above a threshold lead to financial catastrophe (this threshold is defined by various means depending on how you spend income) and the intensity of expenditure is determined by the threshold. In the double hurdle model the decision to spend may be assigned a distribution, and the amount spent is often Gamma-distributed with a high probability of low cost and a small probability of extremely high cost.

In both cases (Iron Kingdoms or out-of-pocket expenditure analysis) the problem is made more complex by the fact that we don’t usually know the thresholds. Usually in the double hurdle model we’re interested in identify risk factors for exceeding the threshold. Typically in Iron Kingdoms we want to know which decision to boost to get over the second threshold – should we boost the consumption (attack) or expenditure (damage) decisions? We’re also often interested in guessing the threshold values – the GM knows them but we don’t, and we may for example roll a 9 and fail to hit, or hit on an 8 but do no damage on a 9, and then someone else boosts and hits on a 9 but does damage on a roll of 15, so the question is – what is the armour threshold?

In my last Iron Kingdoms session this came up in a beautiful way: our opponent was going to finish off the entire group if it lasted another round, and Alyvia had one feat point left. Unboosted, she was guaranteed to achieve nothing. We knew our enemy was hard to hit and hard to damage, but we didn’t know the exact values. What should she spend her last feat point on? Naturally, since I’m a statistician in my day job, all eyes turned to me. What to do? This sparked a new interest for me: I think there are methods that can be used to answer these questions. So, over the next few weeks I aim to do a few analyses to present some answers to the following questions:

  • Under assumed thresholds and attack/damage values, what are the best ways to spend your feat point budget?
  • Are there guidelines for these decisions when you don’t know the thresholds but have a rough idea of what they might be?
  • If you don’t know the thresholds, are there simple formulas you can use to guess what they are, or to assign probabilities to given thresholds, given that you know the results of other players’ rolls?
  • Can these ideas be extended beyond Iron Kingdoms to other games?

The first question can be answered easily using basic probability theory. The second and third problems are actually a slightly challenging problem in estimating boundary values of a distribution using Bayesian statistical analysis, and I’m going to have a crack at it. The fourth question is related to the third, and is most easily explored through d20/Pathfinder: in this case my naive guess is that you can set a uniform distribution on the prior probability of any threshold value, and because the observed values (the likelihood) are also uniform, get a uniformly distributed posterior distribution for the threshold given the observed data (other players’ rolls). I think I will work from this example back to the Iron Kingdoms example (which may require simulation). If the fourth question has an analytical solution it will lead to a formula I can post on the Pathfinder forums that will allow players to second-guess their GMs’ monsters, and my guess is that a party of 3+ PCs can work out the most likely threshold required to hit within a round of combat. That’s a convenient little trick right there!

Finally, it’s possible that this information may be actually informative for the out-of-pocket spending problem, which I occasionally study at work. I doubt it, but wouldn’t it be great if random ponderings on gaming helped to improve our understanding of health insurance issues in Bangladesh?!

Stay tuned for some Bayesian nastiness, if I can find the time over the next few weeks …

Breaker contemplates the challenges of field medicine

Breaker contemplates the challenges of field medicine

[Note: this adventure report is rather old, but is precursor material for the death of my character, described here].

When we last viewed our heroes’ progress, they had stumbled on hints of a secret, evil collaboration between the Cygnaran navy and the undead rulers of Cryx. However, they had no time to further explore this problem, because they had a mission to complete. Leaving unanswered questions behind them, they took their ship back to the high seas and sailed towards the corrupted Scharde Islands, domain of the Cryx. Their first stop was to be the ancestral home of the trollkin fell-caller, Carlass. She and her warbeast Hrif were the last survivors of her village, which was overrun by the corruption of Cryx while she was on a fishing trip, and it was her desire to return to the island where her kin fell, to reconsecrate it to Dhunia. After this short visit, they would head to the location that their employer, Katrina, believed held the fabled Steam Spire.

Consecration and desecration

They reached Carlass’s home island a few days later, and put into a small and sheltered bay surrounded by marsh and lightly-forested hills. The marsh, Carlass told them, had once been a productive and pleasant locale, but had turned fetid under the influence of the corruption. They passed through it to the trollkin village proper. This had fallen into decay under the encroachment of blight and the tropical environment. Rough stone longhouses dotted the hillside in a small cluster, their roofs falling in and walls already crumbling as thick and poisonous vines twined through them.

Carlass and Hrif wasted no time. They swiftly moved from house to house, hanging little windchimes in the corners of the buildings and lighting incense in their doorways. Once they had adorned all the houses, the group gathered in the central square of the town to wait while Carlass and Hrif began a prayer to Dhunia. This little ritual took them some time and involved a little blood, but they waited patiently. As always, Carlass showed no embarrassment about conducting her rituals before others, and ignored them completely. When she was done, Alyvia offered to help her take down the wind chimes, but was met by a confused and cold stare – the chimes must remain up until Dhunia took them. Now they must all walk to the runestones just to the north of the town, to pay their respects.

Unfortunately, they didn’t make it to the runestones. As they emerged from the village they saw a force of Cryxian horrors sweeping down the hills towards them. They were led by a team of some kind of part-zombie, part-machine monstrosities, being whipped on by a sorcerer of some kind. This little mob of abominations was accompanied by some kind of demonic sharpshooter – and a machine wraith. Unfortunate this, for Alyvia had brought one of their warjacks with them, but their warcaster was still aboard ship …

Not the kind of remote controller you want by your couch

Not the kind of remote controller you want by your couch

They charged to battle, the warjack laying down a barrage of fire as they approached. The machine wraith blinked out of existence and appeared moments later in the warjack. Now the PCs faced their own warjack as a foe! It’s first act was to dismember the three human marines who had accompanied the group up the hill, and then to attack Captain Breaker, who stood near it. Up the hill, Hrif and Carlass made short work of the zombie-machines while Alyvia tried to pin down the sorcerer. The sharpshooter was nowhere to be seen. They soon smashed the sorcerer and his zombie-machines, but by the time the job was done the warjack had defeated Breaker, preparing to stomp on his head once he was down. The sight of Breaker broken and battered in the dirt at the warjack’s feet was too much for Hrif, who charged down the hill and leapt onto the ‘jack’s carapace. He then furiously but methodically destroyed the machine, reducing it to a pile of scrap in his berzerk attempt to drag out the machine wraith. Now the sharpshooter joined the battle but was soon forced to flee, and their final act was the slaughter of the machine wraith as it emerged from its battered shell.

They rushed to Breaker’s side to help him, and though he was far gone they were able to bring him back. However, they realized that his left arm had been pierced by some kind of Cryxian sword – perhaps the sharpshooter or the wraith had cut him? – and he was already beginning to fall prey to the corruption. There was only one solution – to remove the arm. They looked at each other. No one had the strength to do this quickly enough to spare Breaker pain and corruption. What to do? Carlass grunted, and looked meaningfully at Hrif. He understood. One bite later, and Breaker had lost his arm just above the elbow, but the corruption was gone. The group had triumphed, but at the cost of one of their warjacks and Breaker’s arm. He could no longer wield his cannons, and he could not wear a shield in battle. Sometime soon they would need to find him a metal arm.

It seemed that Carlass’s home ground could only bring her grief, and her companions pain. They briefly visited the runestones to make their homage, and then in a fit of rage Hrif uprooted the whole thing. They returned to the ship, and consigned Carlass’s kriel to memory. She had a new kriel now.

The Cryxian nest

From here they sailed for another few days to the location of the fabled Steam Spire. This unprepossessing island showed no outward signs of being the location of a legendary artifact, but Katrina knew better. She led the group underground, along subterranean tunnels to a wide underground lake. Here they found boats pulled up on the shore, obviously recently used. The boats were large enough to carry the party members and the four marines they had brought with them – but not Hrif. He could swim beside them, but something about the dark and placid lake was strangely forbidding, and the characters didn’t like the idea of Hrif doing that. There was nothing for it but to leave him on the shore. Carlass whispered a few words of reassurance, and perhaps gave him some orders[1], and then they pushed the boats out into the water.

The lake opened into an underground river. They followed this a little way in, but soon realized the wisdom of leaving Hrif behind. Strange shark-like crocodile things leapt from the water as they traveled, dragging one of the marines off the boat to his bloody death; others began to smash at the bottom of the boats. They rowed furiously, but by the time they reached a sandy beach deeper in the underground complex the boats were almost sunk, and they had lost all their marines.

They found themselves beached on a kind of dam that stilled and redirected the flow of the river. The beach was overlooked by stone ramparts of some kind of fortress that completely blocked the tunnel. They entered this fortress with ease, Alyvia climbing the walls to open a gate mechanism; no one was here to stop them. Inside they found a few outhouses that might once have been barracks or armouries, and a central room containing a statue that looked something like a shrine. Carlass entered this room, but the walls behind her sealed shut and the statue came to life, attacking her! By the time the others had managed to blow their way through the wall she had shattered the statue with the power of her fell calling, though, and was safe.

Finding nothing else in this fortress, they left by a gate on the far side from that by which they had entered. They moved on, deeper into the Cryxian nest.

Captured!

Again they entered tunnels, now darker and narrower than before, and they were some distance down them before they realized they had entered a trap. A team of six huge, black-skinned Ogrun appeared before them, carrying crossbows and spears; behind them emerged six more. The lead Ogrun demanded their immediate surrender, and after a moment’s pause they agreed. Breaker and Carlass laid down their weapons; Katrina laid down hers too, including a bandolier of six grenades. Alyvia, seeing her chance, yelled “hit the deck!” and opened fire on the grenades. These exploded, killing four Ogrun instantly, and suddenly battle was joined! Unfortunately, our heroes were all lying prone when battle was joined, and were soon at the mercy of the remaining eight Ogrun. They were now forced to surrender, but this time they were roughed up and bloodied before they were allowed to stand. Alyvia’s desperate attempt at escape had bought them only extra injuries.

And so they were carried away, captive and unconscious, into the Cryxian nest …

fn1: Though I foolishly didn’t clarify what we told him to do – this would prove both a curse and a boon in the following session …

Image credit: the first picture was produced by Breaker’s player, Eddie.

In stillness a silent weight
Pausing as the minutes each evaporate

A desire to leave a scar
To raise a voice from within the dark

Decaying, cascading, existence falls apart
Around me, within me
So I must leave my mark

This is a sacrifice
To prove that I was here
This is a sacrifice
To prove I was at all
And when my voice ceases to be
Will the echo still ring loudly?
And when there’s nothing left of me
Will my memory still go on?

A flicker, transitory state
An echo of an instance that burns a way

A moment, a shard of time
A solitary thread that threatens to unwind

Decaying, cascading, existence falls apart
Around me, within me
So I must leave my mark

(Bragg’s last lament, recorded sometime near the end)

Carlass grunts. The battle has moved and left her, shattered and useless, in its wake. She struggles to raise her head, blinking away tears and fresh blood. The demon that broke her is now facing Captain Breaker, its slender waxen form incongruous against the great dark bulk of the Ogrun. But Breaker is already done, his heavy armour smashed where the demon’s lance tore through it, his arm and chest slicked with thick red blood, now congealing on his hands in amongst the soot that he had used for disguise. The fiend is silent and swift but careful, moving with infernal grace as it prepares to deliver the killing blow, and Breaker has a desperate, hunted look on his face: he knows he is done for, that he cannot run and he cannot win. Just behind this butcher’s tableau the Fire Monk, Shara-jin, stands amongst a pile of murdered Ogrun, her whip dangling uselessly in one hand, looking shocked and confused as if she still has not caught up with the pace of the battle. The anti-magic manacles on her wrist glow with power, and it is clear that she desperately wants to invoke Menoth’s grace, but even Menoth has abandoned them in this dark hole. Shara-jin, too, is covered in blood, listing on one twisted leg and breathing heavily with the pain of her wounds. Near Shara-jin are scattered the remains of their employer, Katrina; her upper body lies on the pile of slaughtered Ogrun, staring slack-jawed at the ceiling, and shreds of the rest of her decorate the charnel pile, some still twitching. Behind them the mysterious Rhulic dwarf, Anya, charges in to attack the demon. A whirling dervish of tightly-contained murder, she runs lightly across the Ogrun bodies, sword in hand, preparing to strike the demon to its flanks as it focuses on Breaker. On the far side of the battle field Alyvia is crouched over her gun, desperately reloading. Her anti-magic manacles also glow, as forgetting their presence she briefly thinks to invoke some deadly charm, only to feel the first sting of their potent restraint. The gun-mage is now just a pistolleer. And no pistolleer will mark this beast. Alyvia’s face is streaked with livid tracks of some vicious whip, one arm moving delicately with pain. She will not last once Breaker is done. None of them will.

Carlass’s face sinks back to the dusty floor, and she swoons briefly. But her anger resurges, and she struggles back to the hellish reality. Her flesh briefly responds to the ever-familiar spark of rage, tries to knit itself together, to regenerate, but it is done. Every one of her kind knows of this moment, when their special regenerative powers hit their limit. Days of starvation, exhaustion, running and hiding, the constant batterings, have worn out even her prodigious powers of regeneration. When first a Trollkin is wounded, the skin heals itself in an instant, eagerly and without asking; push it too soon within a day, and it will respond sluggishly but willing enough; when need calls a third time, the body will drag itself back from any indignity, though the effort is a screaming horror; but after that, well, that is enough for any life. Carlass’s body is done. She tries to raise herself on one arm but finds it shattered – when she does not know, she thought the demon just pierced her chest with one clean strike but now as she feels the knitting fail and tries to take stock she realizes that she has been ravaged: it gutted her from navel to sternum, her arm is smashed on its whole length, and blood is pouring from one leg that cannot move at her will but seems to twitch with a pointless energy all of its own. When did this even happen? It was a moment, a blink, a shard of time, and her whole life was wrenched from her.

Still, wounds that would send a human straight to Urcaen do not carry the same weight for one of her kind. There is yet time. There is always time, is there not, to suffer a little more? It is the curse of her kind. She rolls a little, shifts and grits her teeth against the waves of pain that come rolling in over the broken reefs of arm and ribs. Under here somewhere … yes … there … an arm that still works. She drags it out in tortured shifts and starts that feel as if they take an eternity, and pushes herself upward, blinking back tears of agony, half onto her knee.

Carlass grunts. What had seemed like an eternity was just a few heartbeats. Alyvia has loaded her gun and is about to fire, Breaker is still alive, and Anya the Rhulic dwarf lies sprawled on the pile of Ogrun, blood spreading across her robes from a deep blow in her side, a stunned expression on her face. The demon stands over her for a moment and then flicks back across the battlefield to Breaker, moving with lightning speed and purpose, crossing the space in a blur so fast and otherworldly that it would make a human sick. Breaker is ready, pitiful little scimitar in hand, but he still has that expression – he has seen Anya go down, and he knows his time has come.

It is now or never. Carlass wants to make one last booming call, but her breath is coming weak and in stuttering gasps, drowning in the blood that fills her chest and bubbles from her nose and mouth, and anyway she cannot see clearly enough through the blood and broken bone to make a mark for her voice. Her rebellious mortal flesh will not even respond enough to heal her voice, her most precious of gifts. She cannot call; but a fell-caller is not just a booming voice to shatter stone and bone. A fell-caller is also the keeper of her people, guardian of the secrets of Dhunia. Now is the time to call upon them. She pushes herself up a little more, so that she can be seen above the pile of Ogrun corpses, and coughs a great gout of blood over her chest. Sucking in a pained breath, she raises her voice in a thin, keening wail, and calls forth in her orator’s voice:

You, demon, hoy! Hear me! I, Carlass of the Scharde Kriel, I am your last mark. I curse you. I curse you with the wrath of Dhunia! With this blood and flesh of Dhunia’s I bring down upon you her rage and her vengeance! Know that I was your last mark, and that with my death you invoked the curse of all of earth’s children. You will never see the surface, and you will never know the sun, for you are doomed by Dhunia!

And then she collapses. She does not know if the demon even heard her, though she thought she saw it twitch a sideways glance at her. The Fire Monk heard her, she knows, she saw the dawning horror in her eyes. As death’s dark tendrils reach up to her, Carlass whispers

Avenge me, Fire Monk

and then her voice, too, is beyond use. All her flesh has given in. Now she wishes Hrif were here, but he is far gone and lost. She cannot call on their special bond, because these manacles bind her magic from use. Even if she could call him, he is far from helping her now. She is alone. She has failed her new Kriel just as she failed her last Kriel; and just as she was not there to see how her last Kriel ended, so too she will not know how it is for this strange patch-work Kriel she had so recently made her own. She has failed again. Nothing is left of her tribe or her flesh … will even her wrath endure?

Poem note: Bragg’s last lament is actually the song Document by Assemblage 23, with one tiny change

I have two session reports to write, which will give the context to this little story.

The galley's new grease-monkey ...

The galley’s new grease-monkey …

When we last left our heroes, they had just captured a large galley, killed its captain in cold blood and won a Letter of Marque from the government of Five Fingers. Now authorized to conduct piracy against the ships of other nations, our group of characters were able to set in motion plans for a life of officially-sanctioned larceny and violent crime.

Nonetheless, our PCs were not happy about how events had turned out in capturing the Urcaen’s Call. Carmichael the Warcaster’s decision to kill the captain in cold blood – slitting his throat in front of his entire captive crew – left the PCs in a significant bind. Captain Mayhorn’s family and patrons were almost certain to seek vengeance for his death, and practically the best way to protect themselves from such reprisals would be to kill all the crew and dump them at sea, or maroon them and leave them to cannibalism and death; but none of the group wished to stoop to such barbarity. Carmichael’s arbitrary action also encouraged an atmosphere of lawlessness amongst the surviving crew of El Pollo Diablo, and would make them much more difficult to control in battle. Since they could not bring themselves to commit slaughter and rule by tyranny, the group decided to make an example of Carmichael through a public whipping and a speech by the Captain, and then dropped their captives at a town far from Five Fingers, drunk and with enough money to keep them drunk for months. They hoped through this tactic that the crew’s information would take a long time to reach Five Fingers, would come accompanied by stories of their drunken excesses, would likely not be believed or accurate in its descriptions of the group, and would probably also be distorted by passing second hand through many tellers.

Nonetheless, Carmichael’s actions had put them at risk, and they decided it might be wise to get out of town for a while. After recruiting new crew – including mechanics and other specialists for their new galley – the PCs took a job for the rich young daughter of a local crime boss, one Katrina Craslovini. She was mounting an archaeological expedition to the Scharde Islands in search of some kind of mythical building (or its ruins) and needed a ship and bodyguards to go with her. This presenting a perfect opportunity to get out of town, the PCs jumped at the chance (and the excellent remuneration on offer), and agreed to go with her. After a short but thankfully non-violent conversation with her father, who tried to dissuade them from travelling, they set off for the Scharde Islands.

They managed to convince Katrina to allow them a few personal stops of their own on the journey to the Scharde Islands, one of which was to be a visit to Carlass’s extinct tribe, therein to worship at the runestones of her tribe. The first stop, however, was to be at a small and irrelevant town south of Five Fingers, where Sharajin wished to investigate the trail of a man she was pursuing. Sharajin is a monk of the Menoth church, likely some kind of Inquisitor, and probably an extremely nasty person when left in a darkened room well-stocked with sharpened pieces of metal and overly open-minded fellow citizens. So it is likely that the group put into this small bay in search of a man who had perhaps simply had the temerity to claim the sun was hotter than the fires of Menoth, or some such foolishness. Nonetheless, Sharajin was one of us, and so as a team we went to that small and sun-baked town in quest of a free-thinker, that we might hand him over to Sharajin’s tender ministrations.

Or so we thought …

Carlass stood at the helm with Hrif the Younger, enjoying the sea breeze, as they put into the small bay where the town lay, lazy and quiet in the sun-drenched morning. Carlass, proud chronicler of a hunter-gathering culture, grunted in disgust at the patchwork of fields that stretched out into the hills beyond the town like a haphazard chessboard of yellows and greens. Smoke rose from town chimneys, occasional farmers and townsfolk stopped in their labours to stare at the unfurled sails of El Pollo Diablo, and somewhere on the road near the town an ancient labour-jack glinted in the sunlight as it clacked along the furrows of a new-ploughed field.

Once the ship had put into the port, the PCs disembarked. They had decided to take a day’s shore leave, so the crew were soon scampering off to restaurants and brothels on the seafront. They left their crew behind and visited the local notables – that is, the local Priest and Nobleman – and inquired as to the man Sharajin sought. Had they seen a scientist fleeing heresy, a unionist covertly escaping torture for wanting to better the lot of salt miners, some foolish woman who had thought to protest her husband’s beatings?

No, they hadn’t, but a man had been seen heading out of town, and it was possible that he was in the ruins beyond the town. As the sun rose to its zenith and the local farmers broke off their harrowing and scrannetting to rest in the shade of their hedgerows, our little group of heroes set off up the road into the hills beyond town, to find Sharajin’s target. They had been told he was meeting with an old woman of ill repute who was perhaps connected with some religious cult laired in the ruins. Perfect! Sharajin’s eyes lit up with that cold Mennite malice at the thought of a whole religious cult to extinguish, and everyone (except Hrif the Younger and Captain Breaker) had to speed their step to keep up with her.

There was some trouble on the way out of town as the townsfolk made the mistake of thinking that Hrif the Younger had come to kill them all, but he managed to smooth out their concerns.

They found what they sought soon enough – an old burial mound, door newly-affixed, that was guarded by two local men who looked a little like militia. Alyvia approached to try and talk to them, but they opened fire with their rifles immediately, and so the party were forced to kill them. They then entered the burial mound, and soon found what they sought. An inner room had been converted into some kind of workshop, and a group of mechanics were working rapidly on a war-jack, under the watchful eye of a middle-aged woman of ferocious demeanour. The war-jack was obviously built to fit a Mennoth design, and the woman was exhorting her labourers to build it faster. In the corner of the room was a vat of some kind of filthy liquid that was being poured slowly and steadily into a fast-running stream. That liquid was clearly not intended to do good, and the stream obviously ran out of this burial chamber to somewhere downhill…

Captain Breaker takes the fore

Captain Breaker takes the fore

The PCs leapt into the attack, but discovered themselves suddenly facing off with a group of zombies that the woman managed to conjure forth. She was a necromancer, most vile of heretics! A short and nasty battle followed, in which the woman’s magic nearly felled Captain Breaker, but in the end neither nor her zombies were much of a match for the group. As the battle unfolded, Carlass stopped the poison flowing into the stream, and was able to identify it – swampfoot fever, the same disease whose cure had been stolen from the Golden Crucible and carried north on Captain Mayhorn’s ship just a few weeks earlier.

What a remarkable coincidence …

In the room the PCs found a set of plans for Mennoth war-jacks, and now they learnt who it was that Sharajin was chasing: a spy who had stolen plans for Mennoth war-jacks, and aimed to sell them to the highest bidder. He was gone, and had obviously made his profit, but now Sharajin had possession of the plans. The necromancer of course had to die, and told them nothing useful except that the poison was for the town water supply – she would not say why or who she was working for, but no doubt she was a member of one of the standard cults that venerate the sick and the dead. They killed her.

The PCs then returned to town, bringing with them the parts and plans for the warjacks, and the warjack itself they reconfigured as a labour-jack and donated to the townsfolk. They then returned to their boat … and encountered a strange epilogue.

This nameless little town was officially in the territory of the kingdom of Cygnar, and as they returned to the bay the PCs saw a sloop of the Cygnar navy at rest in the bay. On the beach, Katrina and the crew they had left on the ship were being held at gunpoint by Cygnaran Marines. Why? Captain Breaker approached, leaving the PCs and their war-jack at a suitably menacing distance, and negotiated with the Marines. It appeared that they simply suspect the group of being pirates, and once they had seen Breaker’s Letter of Marque and confirmed his mission was to the Scharde Islands they let Katrina and the other crew free. However, as the captain prepared to return to his sloop he stopped and asked the Captain,

Have you by any chance seen or heard anything of a ship by the name of Urcaen’s Call?

Feigning innocence and appearing as concerned as one mariner should for the fate of another, Breaker declared he had not, nor had he heard of such a vessel, but why were the navy interested? Should he be concerned about pirates?

The captain’s response sent a chill down everyone’s spine:

It’s nothing. We were due to rendezvous near here just a week since, and have heard nothing of her. Thanks for your concern.

And off the captain went, returning to his ship.

The PCs had ambushed the Urcaen’s Call as it headed towards these waters from Khador, and it had been carrying a large quantity of treatment for the very disease they had just seen being poured into the town’s drinking water supply. Could it be that the Cygnaran navy captain had intended to appear as a hero to this town, arriving just in time to cure them of their disease? If so, then he must have a connection with the necromancer they had just killed, or to her employers. And if so, then Captain Mayhorn had surely been deeply involved in whatever plot this was, and perhaps his death had not been so ill-omened. Furthermore, was it just this one Cygnaran captain, or was the Cygnaran rulership involved in poisoning its own people … and why?

It appeared that in ambushing the Urcaen’s Call the PCs had interfered with a devious plot connected with both the Cygnaran navy, a Mennite traitor and some powerful necromantic group. Which must also mean that the stevedore’s union that hired them was opposed to this sinister scheme for its own reasons. By taking one simple job, the PCs may have embroiled themselves in evil designs connecting sinister organizations and the governments of at least two countries…

Perhaps, after all, the safest bet would be an extended tour of the Scharde Islands …

Picture credit: again, these pictures are by Captain Breaker’s player.

What shall we do with the drunken prisoner, what shall we do ...

What shall we do with the drunken prisoner, what shall we do …

My current role-playing group hold minor adventures away from gaming sessions using Facebook. After our first Iron Kingdoms session ended with the war-caster killing captain Mayhorn in cold blood, one of the players opened a whole new chat session in Facebook to discuss the implications. This led to a long debate, mostly in character, about the implications of slaughtering this upstanding man and what to do about it. After much debate, we finally decided that the PC in question would be whipped 40 times – 10 times by each other member of the group – in front of all our crew, to ensure that everyone knew that we only kill people in battle, and only the people the captain decides to kill.

One of the great things about these (often impromptu) Facebook sessions is that they give all the players a chance to craft what their PCs say, rather than just blurting it out. It turns out that Captain Breaker’s player is excellent at writing a pirate, and did a great job throughout the downtime of producing piratical theatre. Here, then, is his final speech in front of the gathered crew:

Men and women of the seas!! Stamp yer feet and cry to the skies for today you have all proven yourselves as deserving sea wolves!! It is because of your bravery and strength that we have triumphed against an enemy twice our size and might.

Sea Dogs and scum we might all be, but no man here can deny that we have left our bite in the arse of those that believe themselves better than us! Remember the dead me hearties! They reach to us from Urcaen, their eyes demand that we continue to amass riches enough to slake their thirst, so that on the day of our judgement we shall have hands of gold to share with them in the afterlife.

Aye, but there is reason to mourn on this day as well, for our victory is not without stain. Mourn?! you say, aye says your captain, for today an act of vile thuggery has robbed us of both further glory and respect as sailors. I speak of the murder in cold blood of former Captain Mayhorn. Officer Carmichael!!! STEP FORWARD!

I accuse you of murdering Captain Mayhorn right after he had given up arms and begged for quarter. An act that not only is dishonorable, but more importantly robs this company of possible ransom money. Know man, that the actions of one man could brand your captain and this crew as pirates if it is not duly punished!! This act of impiety breaks the rules of conduct of the sea and carries the penalty of death by hanging. Carmichael! Do you deny these charges?!! Explain yourself in front of all and God!

There followed an extended section where we all indicated how our characters responded, and how Carmichael bore it all. I think most of us would have been too shy to work through all this stuff in so much detail and dramatic style in person, so it was a really refreshing and interesting way to run group interaction.

This was also the first time I’ve been a member of a group that actually took a cold-blooded execution seriously. We were generally concerned about both the fact that it was done at all, and its implications for our future as Privateers. And without the GM having to enforce any penalties in-game for the act!

This isn’t the only good thing about running downtimes by Facebook – I’ll try and say more about that in the new year!—

picture credit: Captain Breaker’s player was responsible for the picture of Breaker (Left) and Hrif the Younger (right) discussing what to do with a prisoner.

El Pollo Diablo heading to battle

El Pollo Diablo heading to battle

The crew roster having been established, let us cast off. The officers of El Pollo Diablo found themselves in Five Fingers with a ship in need of repairs and not even enough money to pay the docking fees. Fortunately they soon made contact with a local gangster – ostensibly head of the local stevedore’s union – who needed a ship to return “stolen” goods. These goods were, apparently, “stolen” from the Golden Crucible, the monopoly producers of black powder and other alchemical wonders in Caen. Furthermore, these goods were of such crucial importance that the union organizer in question was willing to pay to refit our heroes’ boat, give them a sizable cash reward, and arrange a Letter of Marque that would offer them warranty as privateers (and thus indemnify them against claims for the goods they hijacked). All they had to do was ambush a ship called Urcean’s Call, captained by a popular and famous man called Captain Mayhorn, and steal its cargo.

The PCs, naturally being solidly pro-union, and not seeing any reason to be distrustful of a powerful man who works on the docks at Five Fingers, naturally agreed. Also they needed the money.

Alyvia and Carmichael

Alyvia and Carmichael

El Pollo Diablo was soon ready for the tide, and while they waited for the ship to be prepared our heroes investigated the Urcean’s Call‘s itinerary. It appeared this ship would be making a long journey along the ports of Khador, then heading out to the deep ocean to pass around Cryx and far south towards Mennoth. If they could get its course they could easily ambush it on the high seas, northwest of Cryx, by pretending to be a ship in distress. No one would ever be any the wiser …

They sent Carmichael the warcaster north on a fast train. He met the ship on its passage north and arranged to join it as a warcaster, most important of crew. By the time it reached the northern town of Ohk the PCs were waiting, and Carmichael had stolen its shipping plans. He had also managed to gain control of one of its two warjacks. Carmichael stayed onboard the Urcean’s Call when it put out from Ohk, knowing full well that his friends would ambush it on its long journey southward …

Battle was joined on the high seas a week’s voyage out of Ohk. El Pollo Diablo wallowed in the swell, sending off smoke signals of distress, until noticed and approached by Urcaen. When she was pulling alongside the crew of the devil chicken unleashed a broadside, and battle was joined. Carlass and Hrif the Younger leapt over the railings to the deck, while Sharajin called upon Menoth’s wrath to lay fire on her enemies, and Alyvia fired from the deck. Hrif they Younger laid about with his huge axe, slaying crewmen five at a time. As Carlass, Alyvia, Sharajin and Hrif kept the crew beaten down Captain Breaker charged into the cabin of Captain Mayhorn. He unleashed a volley from one of the ship’s cannons – which he carried under one giant arm – but somehow it hit a pillar and rebounded, smashing Breaker to the deck. A strange battle followed as Carmichael tried to join the fight with his warjack, but the four of them could not fit into the captain’s cabin. The battle ended, however, when Hrif and Carlass emerged from belowdecks dragging the last of the ship’s crew. Carlass ordered the captain to stand down or Hrif would begin eating his crew; he refused; Hrif cheerfully began munching on a gunner.

Captain Mayhorn surrendered when he heard the gunner’s screams and saw Hrif cracking the still-living man’s legs and sucking out the warm marrow. The remaining 15 crew members, though shying away from the horrific sounds and sight of Hrif’s hunger, were not so foolish as to not see what happened next: Carmichael, showing neither joy nor sorrow, coolly cut Mayhorn’s throat before anyone with conscience could intervene, and the once-loved captain expired in a pool of ignominy on the deck of his own ship.

A hush descended over the decks. This act would, no doubt, have far-reaching consequences. The captive crew’s anger was guaranteed, as was the wrath of Mayhorn’s family and allies. But the characters had the ship…

In the aftermath of the raid they checked the cargo they had been sent to steal, and found it to be many vials of treatment against a vial disease often spread by the undead of Cryx. They took enough of the cargo to supply their own needs, and then arranged to sell it to the teamster. Their mission had been a success, they now had a galleon and a lot of money, but something sat ill with them … a feeling that they had done wrong, that they had stolen the wrong cargo and killed the wrong man. What, exactly, had they started?