The Cleric Jannik, Priest of Prios The Rogue Marklech, Spider Cultist The Fighter Stanislav, Monster Hunter The Wizard Falur Ryerson, Ordained Arcanist
October 8, I Watch – Sleep, Arrival of Falur
The party awoke to the approaching sound of horse hooves coming up the road from Bridge. They emerged from their tents to see a crimson robed wizard with two Black Cloaks riding escort. The wizard Falur dismounted from his horse and informed the party that he had been dispatched by the Lady Osis to aid in the investigation of Bridge. Falur relayed that he and his companions had stopped in Bridge the prior evening, and had heard two rumors of witchcraft: 1) mottled salamanders were reported to have fallen from the sky; and 2) the butcher claimed to experience spectral pains in her limbs, as if being pierced by iron needles. Falur asked the party why they were not in Bridge pursuing the witch.
Jannik approached Falur and informed him that they had come to the mine because they suspect that Arpad Summerborn might be in league with the witch, who they suspect is Stella, the Priest’s Daughter. Further, they had heard rumors that the mines might harbor evil magicks of their own, and should be investigated.
Falur consented to aid the witchburners in their exploration of the mine and investigation of Arpad. The party saw that the Black Cloaks were actually of the special group called the Red Flails, an order tasked to escort ordained arcanists to ensure that they used their unnatural magical powers only in the service of Prios.
Falur’s robe is adorned with commendations of his service to Prios, showing that he is a trusted and capable agent of his order. The mark of the arcanists blazoned from Falur’s robe, a triangle with the sun of prios extending beyond its embrace. He had come a long way from his childhood, where he was forced to expose his arcane abilities in order to save the life of someone close to him. His town did not thank him for his act. Rather than stoning him in the street, they were moved to merely lock him up until the Black Cloaks came to collect him. Falur’s decades of study in the mountain town of Redina under the harsh discipline of the Red Flails led him to become a believer in the harsh law of Prios. Magic must be controlled, it threatens the world when left unchecked.
October 8, II Watch – Explore the area of the collapsed mine, underground lake, and cave of skulls
Jannik took the lead, escorting Falur to meet with Arpad Summerborn. Arpad stood a stonesthrow from the mine entrance, flanked by two guards. He appeared to be consulting with elder guard, but would occasionally turn to shout an order to the camp foreman. The foreman was overseeing laborers to repair the deserted mine buildings. Some laborers were reinforcing the old barracks, while others were patching holes in the supply warehouse.
Arpad saw the witchburners approaching, and his eyes widened when he saw the crimson robed wizard, Falur. “Ah Jannik, you have a new companion I see? It is not every day that one sees an Arcanist of Prios. What brings you to this encampment? It will be good to have another fellow about understands that the mysteries of the world can be solved through research and hard effort. These fellows of Bridge banter on about the foul magicks of these mines, but surely you understand that with the careful application of science and research we can tame the world and make it serve us! Don’t you agree?” Falur carefully assented, “Indeed, magic should be controlled or it is a threat to us all.”
Abandoned Oldson Mine
Arpad asked the companions to assist him by scouting the mine and area for threats while his laborers readied the camp. The party assented and began scouting the abandoned mine. They walked beneath an old dried wooden sign that read “Oldson” and continued for a span.
Along the way, Marklech noticed a funnel shaped web that descended into a fissure in the stone. He spoke to the spider and learned that this tunnel had been long abandoned, the hunting was sparse and air too dry for the spider’s liking.
Before long, the party found where the tunnel had collapsed. Marklech sent his eight-legged familiar to investigate through a small crawl space. The familiar discovered that the collapse did not extend too far, and that the air on the other side of the tunnel was moist and filled with the scent of rot and mold.
The group returned to the mine entrance and told Arpad to dispatch some laborers to clear the mine collapse. He agreed to do it as soon as they had the buildings in habitable shape, “first things first.” At the same time, two spearmen descended from a mining trail holding filled waterskins. “Good news, there is a stream just beyond this rise. We won’t have to lower buckets into the river for fresh water as we had feared.” Falur spoke up, “Arpad, surely you know as well as I that quicksilver can be a poison for those who misuse its properties. We should investigate this stream to ensure that it is not tainted.” Arpad was reticent to call quicksilver a poison, but agreed that the stream should be investigated and asked the party to look into the matter.
Falur begged a moment of leave, and said that he wanted to investigate something briefly. He took Jakab and István with him back into the cave, Marklech followed as well. Falur went towards the collapse and performed a lengthy magic ritual, after which his eyes glowed with an inner light. Falur’s Detect Magic spell enabled him to notice that faint motes of magical energy existed within the Cinnabar ore residue left in the mine, and he also noticed that the flails carried by the Red Flail guards were enchanted, that Marklech’s debt tattoos were imbued with latent enchantments, and that Marklech’s spider companion was host to a fey spirit.
The Underground Lake
The party reassembled and began hiking into the hills to investigate the source of the stream. After some time, the trail they were following continued on away from the stream, while the stream ran down from a rocky ravine. The party waded up the stream, against its current into the ravine. A few of them lost their footing on the slick rocks, bruising their shins along the way.
Before long, they noticed that the majority of the water was coming from an adit that had been carved into the side of the ravine. Marklech volunteered to investigate the adit, the party assented and he entered the darkness alone. Marklech crawled through the narrow passage for half an hour before stumbling upon a large underground lake. His light source only illuminated about 60 ft, so he could not see across the lake to determine the vastness of the chamber or whether there was an opposite bank. Where he stood appeared to be a man made drainage tunnel, the cavern had stalactites hanging from the ceiling and a few stalagmites breached the surface of the lake.
Marklech returned and told the party what he had found, they returned to the trail and decided that they would explore a bit more before returning to camp. They continued up the trail away from the camp to explore what else there might be.
The Cave of Skulls
The party saw a natural cave nestled in the rocks ahead of them. Once they had approached within short distance from the cave mouth, they saw that the cave had a shelf carved into each wall. Each shelf held hundreds of stacked boar skulls, interspersed with the occasional human skull. The adventurers looked about for threats, but nothing seemed to happen. Falur heard the sound of some loose rubble falling from above and had the sensation that he was being watched. As Stanislav approached the cave, the human skulls each illuminated. Light flickered from the eye sockets of the skulls as if there were candles burning within. The witchburners noticed that the human skulls had etchings on their pate, but only Falur could read them as they were written in Infernal. Each skull appeared to have a list of sins written on it, Falur speculated that the sins might’ve been committed by the person to whom the skull once belonged.
Stanislav decided to crush in a skull with his maul, and barely dodged the resultant gout of flame. Marklech decided to scout ahead, and saw that around the corridor there were four monstrous skulls adorning the walls as prize trophies. Stanislav identified the monstrous skulls as belonging to: a hill giant, an unidentified jaw-less humanoid, a reptilian Abishi, and an unidentified brutish demon with six upright horns encircling the skull. Marklech called the party forth and they walked through the hallway carefully. They entered a large chamber and saw an altar before them that was unadorned except for a carved out bowl shaped to receive a skull as an offering.
New Named NPC’s
Jakab (Black Cloak – Red Flail)
István (Black Cloak – Red Flail)
I’m glad to be back at the table and to have a new player. It is fun to have some exploration that is more simple than the intrigue of Bridge. I put mostly natural obstacles in the session because it feels incongruous with the setting for the cave to be overrun with kobolds or some small threat.
The cave of skulls felt a bit incongruous with the narrative, but I am really curious to see where it goes.
We talked after the session and folks are still having fun, but are frustrated by so many sessions that only have social encounters. Ultimately, I think they want an easy answer. They want to know with certainty what the source of the unrest in Bridge is. I told them that in a sandbox world I am not trying to always provide clean answers. I want them to feel like it is a real lived in world with all the messiness that comes with that. However, I do understand that some variety would be welcome, and I can sympathize with the desire to have a definitive answer.
I will try to frame their options for them next session. They need to hang someone in Bridge who the town council believes is a witch. They can then do any number of things, investigate the army battalion that went missing in the harsh mountains to the east, investigate the forest of symbaroum, delve into the ruins they found during session one. I think that I am going to fiddle with my XP system a bit to encourage players to drive the plot. We will see how that goes.
The Cleric Jannik, Priest of Prios The Rogue Marklech, Spider Cultist The Fighter Stanislav, Monster Hunter The Fighter Friedrich, Treasure Hunter
October 6, I Watch – Sleep at Kingshall
At Kingshall, Roman and Esmerelda seemed to disprove that the party was planning to leave town without first resolving the witch situation. The adventurers did not confront the house staff, instead gathering up some extra food to take with them on the road.
October 6, II Watch – Set out from Cinderhouse Inn
Arpad Summerborn was busy getting his caravan organized. In total, there were 6 members of the watch, 7 hired guards (3 spear, 3 archer, 1 sword/shield), 10 laborers, and 3 wagons laden with supplies each drawn by 2 mules. Arpad gave a brief address regarding the momentous nature of their excursion. He thanked watch captain Kristina Changemaker for promising some of the watch to help see the mining camp established. Arpad gave an overview of the journey, saying that they would be traveling for two days.
October 6, III Watch – Boar in the Valley (Random Encounter – Boar)
After a few hours of travel, the caravan crested a small rise and saw a sounder of wild hogs in an adjacent valley. Five large boar herded their sows and piglets about near a small creek, feasting on the fall harvest of acorns. Stanislav took point on the hunt. He began to lead his companions to a vantage point within arrow range. Unfortunately, Stanislav was unfamiliar with the local flora and didn’t realize that the branches underfoot were of a brittle hardwood and prone to loud breaks. The boar charged headlong at Stanislav while the sows herded their piglets into the thick underbrush. Stanislav charged full-speed towards the boar and brought down the lead boar with a thrown handaxe. He was then knocked prone by the herd but was ultimately saved from the rampaging boar by some well-shot arrows.
After the combat, Friedrich observed one of the archers preparing to use a rusty knife to field dress one of the boar. Friedrich stepped in and introduced himself to Vaude, instructing him to take better care of his knife and sharing the work of preparing and moving the hog carcass.
October 6, IV Watch – Friedrich the Pit-master
Friedrich worked with Vaude to prepare and smoke the five wild boar. When the meat was ready to eat, it was outstanding, and both men earned the appreciation of the caravan. While all were gathered around the fire, Janik cast the spell “Light” on a small stone and gave a brief sermon about the power of Prios. The performance was met with general astonishment. The act of performing magic made four members of the watch suspicious of Janik, while four of the hired guards who were not from Bridge seemed notably unimpressed.
In the aftermath, the swordsman Card accused Janik of witchcraft. Card spoke of the evil powers of the Davokar and called the all the other men cowards for refusing to stand against Janik. He seemed convinced that Janik’s powers were not from Prios but from the foul forest. When asked about why he knew so much about the foul magic, he talked about how he had travelled into the forest to help excavate a giant clay mound filled with artifacts. He departed after a foul witch from the forest tribes blighted the camp with a sickness that took his cousin.
Later, Marklech cheated Card out of 4sp by having his spider familiar get a vantage point during a game of cards. A laborer introduced himself as Blance and told Janik that he seeks to journey to Templewell to become a faithful of Prios. Janik encouraged him to pursue his dream.
October 7, I Watch – Sleep
The adventurers began packing up camp, but their morning labor was interrupted by shouting. The spearman Cantor was beating on a laborer named Thomer, accusing him of having stolen a locket. Cantor demanded that the pear-shaped man tell him where he had hidden the object. Arpad and the adventurers intervened and convinced Cantor to leave the issue to rest for the moment, further declaring that anyone who finds the locket must immediately return it to Cantor. Arpad insisted that the item was more likely lost than stolen, but added that he would personally check everyone’s belongings when they next made camp.
October 7, II Watch – Boar on the Road
The party encountered a second family of boar along the road. Stanislav again took the lead against the boar, charging ahead with his axe and maul while the rest of the group hunted down the swine with spear and arrow. While the attendants were field dressing the boar, Janik searched through Card’s Bag. Janik found a letter written to Card that seemed to corroborate the story he had told the night before about his bewitched cousin.
After the morning incident with Cantor, Friedrich thought it would be wise to keep watch on the camp attendants to see if any of them did anything suspicious. After some time, he noticed a man named Vine digging through the mule carts. After Vine walked away, Friedrich investigated the area. He stumbled onto Cantor’s locket and announced that he had located it to the camo, indicating Vine’s guilt. Vine ran for the woods, but Cantor gave chase and almost killed Vine before Frederich and Stanislav intervened. They advocated that rather than killing him on the road, Vine should be forced to work off his debt. Cantor had to be forcibly subdued, but in the end agreed to allowing Vine to live long enough to face a trial once they arrived at the Oldson Mine.
October 7, III Watch – BlanceConfides in Janik
While travelling, Blance shared his misgivings about the Cantor & Vine situation with Janik. He said that it seemed odd that Cantor would make such a big deal about the necklace, or that Vine would risk stealing it in such a small group. Janik thanked the man for his insight.
October 7, IV Watch – The Oldson Mine
The group arrived at the mine just as the sun was setting, there were a number of neglected buildings that looked about ready to fall in on themselves. Arpad instructed the caravan to set up camp for the night, adding that they would begin the work of restoring the mine in the morning.
Janik took Card aside and told him that he believed his story about the Davokar. Janik told Card that it was his mission to find foul magick and purge the world of heretics. Janik asked Card for his help keeping an eye on some of the Bridge natives in camp, explaining that he believes one of them might be a witch. Card agrees, but also asked Janik to help him get vengeance on the Barbarian witch that killed his cousin.
New Named NPCs: Vaude, the Archer Card, the Swordsman Blance, the Hopeful of Prios Cantor, the Spearman Thomer, the Pear-shaped Vine, the Thief
As the characters departed Bridge, the players talked amongst themselves and joked “hey maybe they will hang a witch while we are gone and then we won’t have to keep dealing with these asinine town folk.” Someone else added, “Hey, at least Blaise is cool.” The players agreed that Blaise was their favorite member of Bridge. They went on to talk about how they couldn’t trust anyone in town; how it felt like the townies each had their own agendas, and how everyone had personal history that clouded their opinions of one another. I feel like this means that I have been successful at representing this claustrophobic small town drama.
I think some of the player reticence to force the issue of the witch hunt has been that the characters are not in particularly dire straits with regards to their own finances or personal safety. I began the campaign by starting the players in debt to “Lady Osis” who is the appointed baroness of the region. She is the one who dispatched them to Bridge, out of concern that the “witch fear” might have an impact on the stability of the town. Her main concern is that the crisis not negatively impact the annual taxes the town will pay her. I have not yet had her present in any of the scenes; neither to force the players to make any payments on their debt, to question why they left Bridge without resolving the situation, nor to demand they resolve the issue with haste. I am considering bringing her into the drama next session by delivering some demands via a letter brought by courier on horseback. The courier would also be a good way to bring news from Bridge about how the situation is progressing so that we can stay on the path of the moduled despite being out of town.
I’m not sure how long we will stay at the mine, I think the players wanted a break from the witch hunt so I am inclined to make the mine location a straightforward monster slaying encounter, but there is a part of me that wants to make it a multi-session hunt of an elusive foe, or to make another human drama related to hazardous mine work for little pay.
Two Random Encounters with boar
I rolled for a random encounter each watch. My method was to use a d6, with only the result of a 1 calling for an encounter with a wandering creature. I used the d12 encounter tables from Witchburner to determine what sort of wandering foe we would find. The only two encounters I rolled both ended up as “boar eating acorns.” When I got “boar” for my second encounter, I laughed out loud. As I contemplated re-rolling, I locked eyes with one of my players who grinned and asked “Did you roll boar again?” At that point, I felt like I had to go ahead with a second boar encounter. The players joked about trying to rename the mine “Boar Tusk Mine” or something to that extent to memorialize the significance of boar hunting, so I am glad I did not .
The other watches, when I didn’t roll a wandering creature, I would just introduce an impromptu social scene by making something up or rolling for inspiration from the d30 NPC tables from New Big Dragon’sd30 Sandbox Companion. I thought the whole Cantor/Thomer/Vine drama was some simple fun, and it actually encouraged some good conversations between the characters when they tried to defend Vine from Cantor despite their involvement in exposing his guilt. They seem to view themselves as lawfully aligned arbiters of justice, and insisted (without GM prompting) that Vine should be brought before a duly appointed body and tried for his theft, or be made to work off his debt instead of being slain.
Stanislav, Treasure Hunter Janik, Cleric of Knowledge Marklech, Forced Convert
TLDR Version – Bulleted Synopsis
Investigated the missing Storemaster. Learned that she might be visiting Forum to ask about the military regiment that ordered winter supplies (but hasn’t picked them up) for their expedition to an old dwarfen fortress in the mountains.
Approached by Arpad Summerborn. Offered to hire the party to help him clean out the old quicksilver mine on the edge of town that he recently acquired from Pepi Oldson.
Hail Storm occurs. Mob formed and called the hail an act of witchcraft, complained of their ruined crops. The mayor and Janik both tried to calm the mob but failed, the watch captain had to break up the mob by force.
Dined with Edna Kingsname and Kristina Changemaker at Kingshall. Learned the history of Bridge and the story of Kristina being the sole survivor of her squad during the barbarian war. Her last memory before appearing in town covered in blood was a vision of an antlered man deep in the Davokar.
Talked to Pepi about the sale of the Old Mine. Learned that his father was burned for “shadow corruption” after being gored by a boar on the edge of the woods. Gathered some actuarial record books and transactional letters. The documents need to be analyzed before they will shine light on the operational history of the quicksilver mine.
Visited David Slingstrider. Overheard a sermon to the mob about not taking law into their own hands to hunt witches. Lana Staffsend was the only parishioner who knew the hymn to Prios that was sung at the end of the sermon. David believed the mine to be a bad idea because it was filled with natural dangers that blinded and scarred many of the workers. He remembered that many who were blinded said that their last vision was of a silver wyrm or dragon, but he believed there to be a natural reason for the blindness and not actually any monster.
David Slingstrider led the party into the catacombs below the church so that they could look at a heretical text that described some of the “ancient traditions” of the old faith. It was kept in a leaded cabinet locked with three padlocks, behind a door with three heavy locks as well. He claimed he was holding some heretical items until the Black Cloaks would arrive to collect them for official study and destruction in Templewell.
Went to Lea Takewood’s cabin to attempt to see Stella Slingstrider – turned away by Lea’s brothers who blamed Janik for botching the goat slaughter and inviting the “forest spirits” to replace Lea’s child with a changeling.
October 4th, III Watch – The Hailstorm
The session began with some wisewives complaining about how the storemaster had gone missing and that the daft barbarian clerk was inept at his job. Stanislav overheard the gossip while on his way to meet up with Janik and Marklech, they caught one another up on the recent happenings (since Stanislav missed last session) and then their conversation was interrupted by some strong gusts of icy wind. They turned to see a dark storm cloud rapidly approaching from the mountains. The townsfolk complained about the unseasonable weather, the greybeards muttering on about how the weather had been much preferable in their youth. People busied themselves closing their window shutters and securing objects that were flying about in the gusty wind.
The burners decided to make their way to the store “Westerhouse” to investigate the storemaster’s rumored disappearance. They entered to see a frazzled woman in a heavy leather apron scolding a well-dressed barbarian for his neglectful service of some elderly customers. Mila Oakswail (Storemaster Assistant) stopped yelling at Goran Warglory (Storemaster Clerk) when she noticed that the burners had entered the store. She offered the burners the services of the shop, and when the burners asked about Mila’s distress, the woman reluctantly admitted that she was concerned because Victoria Townsman (Storemaster) had gone unexpectedly missing, leaving a note about visiting Forum for a business trip. The burners asked if this seemed normal, and Mila admitted it was most unusual but certainly possible. Mila elaborated that Victoria certainly made some business trips as needed, but would usually plan them in advance and give everyone else ample notice. Mila seemed frustrated with Victoria. Finally, Mila speculated that Victoria might be concerned about the large military winter supply shipment she had been given when the regiment passed through last Spring, but nobody had been sent to pick up the supplies. The regiment was supposedly investigating an ancient dwarfen stronghold in the mountains that might be salvaged or rehabilitated. The soldiers would surely be in need of their winter supplies soon, and Victoria had expressed concern that she was tired of keeping on these bulky goods in her warehouse taking up room instead of more profitable stores. Mila also mentioned that the midwife Nina had stocked up on provisions that made it seem she might be preparing to leave Bridge.
There was a brief commotion as the door opened and a strong gust of wind disturbed goods throughout the shop. Mila yelled for the man to shut the door, but Arpad Summerborn (Prospector) spoke over her. Arpad begged permission to post a notice that he was recruiting strong men to help reopen the quicksilver mine outside of town. Arpad began to nail the notice to the wall before Mila had been given the chance to respond to his request. Mila huffed that he had no right to post his notice here, adding that the old mine was cursed and that it was foolish to reopen it.
Janik asked Arpad about his venture, Arpad talked about his plans to reopen the mine now that his family had acquired the land. He dismissed the talk of the curse as hearsay and asserted that with the careful application of science and hard work he felt confident that the mine could produce enough quicksilver to enrich the town and benefit the whole empire. The burners asked Arpad about his relationship with Stella, implying that they knew the two to have been intimate. Arpad flared in anger at the breach of propriety. He asserted that the burners were acting beyond their station. That they should simply burn a witch and be done with it, “it should be easy to find evidence in a town as rife with superstition and backwardness as Bridge. Honestly, the country should benefit from a few less backwoods bumpkins and foot draggers. You’d have my support to burn the lot of them!” Finally, Arpad offered the burners pay in exchange for their help with the mine, “if you’d like a real job where you can earn your pay through actual labor and industry then come out to join me. We leave from Cinderhouse Inn the morning after next. You can find me at the Inn if you have any questions before then.”
October 4th, IV Watch – Assisting the Mayor
After the heavy hailstorm passed, a mob of discontented townsfolk gathered in the town square. As the burners approached, they heard many complaints about damaged property and ruined crops. A farmer complained that the entire crop of plums had been pulverized, and another added that the figs were all torn up as well. Apparently, even some livestock had been killed by large hail. The mayor tried to calm their concerns by appealing to reason, but the crowd quickly turned to fearful accusations of witchcraft. The mayor silenced the crowd when she saw the burners approaching, and invited Janik to address the crowd. “I’ve heard rumors that the burners have found a suspect, please come up here and assure the crowd that we will see a witch burned soon!”
Janik addressed the crowd, but was unwilling to name their suspect and was also unwilling to commit to a specific deadline when they would make a formal accusation. This refusal angered both the mayor and the crowd. The crowd heckled Janik and accused the burners of being witches themselves. The complained that the conditions had only worsened since the burners arrived and that they hadn’t made any progress. Janik made a last attempt to appeal to the crowd with reason, but it fell flat against the emotionally charged mob. The mob shouted threats to burn the witchburners if they didn’t do their job. As chaos threatened to spill over, the watch captain rallied her guard to disperse the angry crowd. They reluctantly broke up and departed, but it was clear that they were bitter about the encounter.
The burners asked Edna about the history of the town and the mine, she refused to answer them there but instead invited them to join her for dinner at Kingshall so that they might talk at leisure and in private. Once the burners were assured that Kristina (Watch Captain) would be joining them for the meal, they assented. Over a hearty dinner, Edna told the story of the town. She proudly informed the group that the foundations of the stone houses had been used by barbarians and by people before them too. She proudly told how the fathers of the town had driven the crude barbarians out and rebuilt the town. She went on to talk about how good fortune had invited great wealth of the town. She talked about the “tribute” they received from the nomadic herders in the plains of New Beretor to the north, and the profit they made supplying the mountain settlements and scattered homesteads of the region. Edna proudly told of the exploits of her father “until the lightning struck.” They asked what she meant and she described his seizures as “lightning strikes,” adding that he could no longer talk. The burners seemed appeased by these justification of wealth, explaining why the town seemed so prosperous.
The burners asked Kristina about the rumor of her being a lone survivor during the barbarian wars, deliriously wandering into town covered in blood. The Watch Captain reluctantly agreed to tell her story, saying it better suited telling over a low-burning fire on a moonless night. She framed the story by describing a different time, when the barbarians had still been bitter about losing their city. Kristina claimed that a squad of the brutes had refused to abide the treaty, instead hiding in the bluffs and raiding homesteads. Kristina’s squad arrived to investigate when they saw smoke coming from the hills. They arrived to see a family brutalized and killed, the house ransacked and burned. In a fury, her squad pursued the barbarians across the New Beretor plains and into the great dark Davokar forest.
She paused in her story to provide some commentary and foreshadowing, indicating that it was foolish to have pursued the brutes into that evil wood of shadow and darkness. She claimed that her squad had been particularly impacted by the slaughter of the family, so they were willing to take on any risk to seek out justice and pushed her to lead them despite her own misgivings.
Kristina led her men into the cursed wood and followed the trails as best she could, but after hours of search they had not found a single raider. As soon as they sat down to rest, her men started to go missing in ones and twos with no sign or sound. Soon paranoia crept in, everyone believing to see shadows in the trees. They abandoned their camp and tried to escape the woods but only go lost further.
Kristina paused, collected herself. She went on to say that she did not know how long they spent in the woods, her memories of those days seem scattered with more gaps than substance. The woods seemed a labyrinth to them, with no idea if they were going deeper into the darkness or closer to the light. Eventually, it was only Kristina and her closest friends who remained together. She vaguely remembered confronting with a man with an ancient sword and a crown of antlers, but admits that it might’ve been a delusion from days without food or drink. The next thing she knew she was in a hospital bed in Bridge with no knowledge of how she got there.
The party asked Kristina what she knew about the shadow corruption of the forest. Kristina said that since her experience she had made it her mission to oppose the shadow. She revealed that her guard proudly patrolled the roads and will kill anyone who has a hint of shadow sickness. She acknowledged that they did not follow the commonly accepted practice of escorting the shadow sickened to the priest for ritual cleansing. Kristina justified her harsh practices by claiming that too often the ritual fails and the blighted are free to spread their contagion through the town.
Finally, Kristina said that the darkness of the Davokar was her greatest enemy. She said that the afflictions that had been recently plaguing Bridge did not seem to her to be like “poisons from the woods.” Kristina speculated that this witchcraft seemed like something else, perhaps resulting from resentment within the town or from the old ones who kept to the ancient ways in the mountains.
When the party asked about the resentment in town, Kristina explained that some in the town had grown in wealthy through their hard work and good fortune and that as a result, others had found only resentment at seeing the success. She indicated that those who keep to the old professions and want to bury their head in the sand are filled with bitterness and complaint. She indicated that lately many of the ones who refuse to change had fallen into debt, and even some of their land had been acquired by the wealthier members in town. Kristina said she had participated in many disputes between tenant and tax-payer, and that it was only natural that the guard would support those respectable citizens whose taxes paid their wages.
October 5th, I Watch – Sleep
The burners oriented themselves in the morning. They intended to go with Arpad to the quicksilver mine the next morning (October 6th), but wanted to investigate the situation beforehand. Pepi had owned the mine before, so he was at the top of the list of people to visit. The mayor mentioned that the priest had given a sermon warning of the dangers of the old mine, and that he might be the natural voice of the opposition. So the players thought it might be worth talking to him as well. Finally, they wanted to potentially blackmail Stella by threatening to tell her father that she had been intimate with Arpad.
October 5th, II Watch – Pepi Oldson is Missing a Toe
The burners learned from the mayor that Arpad had purchased the old quicksilver mine from Pepi Oldson, so they sought him out. They knocked on his door in the morning, but he did not respond. They knocked again, and he opened the door wearing nothing but a sheet. He asked them to return later in the day, but they insisted that he receive them now. He begged a few minutes of leave to get dressed, which they allowed. As he walked away, they noticed he was missing a toe.
Pepi invited them in and he begged forgiveness of the mess, claiming that he had entertained some guests into the middle of the night. They asked about his toe and he claimed to have lost it while he was drunk in his workshop, stepping on something sharp. They asked about the mine and he said he was glad to have sold it off, cursed or not it had just been something to worry about. He claimed that he was happy managing his still and making due with what it earned him. When he was asked about whether he believed in the curse, he was noncommittal. He said it was a damned deadly place and had driven his father to madness trying to manage it. He said that some who came out of the cave with acid scars and raving madness had said that they had seen a silver wyrm, lizard, or dragon in the depths but he didn’t believe the rumors to be anything but a sign of madness.
The burners asked him if he had any of his late father’s effects related to the mine. He invited them into his father’s study, which he kept locked and didn’t seem to enter often. They entered the room and noticed a human skull on the mantle, an overfilled bookshelf, a large desk, and a locked cabinet. Janik asked about the human skull, Pepi laughed and said “well that is my father, of course.” They asked why he kept his father’s skull, and he asked “hm, I wouldn’t very well want to lose it then would I?”
They asked him why it had not been buried, and he told the story of his father’s death. He said that his father had been an avid hunter but was finally gored by a large boar. The wound was tainted by infection but the zealots of the town believed him to have been blighted by a shadow beast and so they burned him to death in some sort of ritual purification. Pepi said he was able to recover his father’s skull from the flames, and has kept him to honor and remember him.
In Pepi’s late father’s effects, the burners found many actuarial and transactional documents that might be used to derive some narrative about the history of the mine, but they did not find any journal or narrative documents that would reveal the story without a lengthy investigation. They also found something that Pepi called a “moonstone” but that Janik was able to identify as a rare ore that was believed to occasionally fall from the stars. Janik knew that the stone was worth a considerable amount, and that when forged it could hold a powerful enchantment. Janik told as much to Pepi, who shrugged and speculated that the blacksmith might give a testicle for something like that. They asked Pepi about his missing tooth, he claimed that he had lost it during a drunken fight.
October 5th, III Watch – David Slingstrider’s Sermon
They entered the church to see the priest giving a sermon to nineteen townsfolk, many of whom had been in the mob the day before. The priest saw the witchburners enter the sanctum and nodded his greeting. His sermon spoke of having faith in “Prios the Lawbringer” and his appointed agents (as he gestured towards the witchburners) who were in town seeking justice for all of us. The priest warned the villagers not to take vengeance into their own hands, endangering themselves and blaspheming Prios, who valued law and order. The sermon ended in a hymn, most of the gathered villagers did not seem to know the words very well except for one woman who had memorized the hymn and sung it with a clear and powerful voice.
After the sermon, they approached the woman who had sung with such vibrancy. She was kneeling in prayer as they approached, she stood to greet them after she completed her ritual and introduced herself as Lana Staffsend. She mistakenly asserted that they had met her husband, the alchemist. When they seemed uncertain, she corrected herself by saying that it had been her brother, the blacksmith, who they had met. She added that she was a town councilor and wished them best of luck in expeditiously bringing the matter to a close.
They approached David Slingstrider (the priest) and spoke with him about the mine. He spoke about how it was a place where the rich exploited the poor. They asked if it was “cursed” (/kɜːrst/) and he argued about the semantics of the word, saying it surely was “cursed” (/ˈkɜːrsɪd/). The priest went on to say that it was a dangerous place for human life, and that it only rewarded greed to open it back up for exploitation. He added that surely Prios did not intend for men to descend into those black depths so that the Summerborn Mine might profit, when it was Prios himself who sheds light equally on all who walk this earth.
The burners asked the priest if he had any texts about the ancient beliefs of the village that they might reference. He said that any such book would, of course, be blasphemy, but hesitantly went on to admit that he had one in his custody that had been found by the town watch as religious contraband. He led the group down a crude carved stone stairwell which was clearly older than the church itself, he explained that he sequestered heretical items down here while waiting for the Black Cloaks to come collect them once or twice each year. At the base of the stairs, a long hallway extended into darkness. David let the group to a nearby door and opened the three heavy locks with three complex keys. In the room there was a large heavy lead chest, a large leaded cabinet, and a solid table wrought from iron and blackened wood.
David pulled a velvet-wrapped text from the cabinet and presented it to Janik to peruse. David stayed with the burners as the examined the book, and put it back in the cabinet when they were done. They asked him who had access to this room and he informed them that there were two others, his daughter Stella, and the Holy Slave Aldus Blackwater. As they left the church, they asked David if they might speak with Stella. David said that she had left with some urgency for the Milkmaid’s house after hearing there might be a complication with her infant.
October 5th, IV Watch – The Takewood Brothers
The adventurers approached the Takewood residence and saw five dour men drinking alcohol on the porch. One of the younger men noticed the approach of the witchburners and alerted the other men. The oldest man seemed to be in his later thirties, with a thick beard and a military demeanor. He stepped ahead of the others and announced “Greetings. I hate to be blunt but you’ve come at a bad time. Our sister is struggling after her birth. She believes that the child she holds is not hers, but a changeling delivered by the elves who in turn stole her infant. Please, give our family leave to deal with this issue on our own.”
As the older brother spoke, two of the younger brothers approached behind him. Their faces clearly displayed hostile intent, and their stance communicated that they were eager for violence.
Janik pressed the older brother (Mikoyan Takewood), “Sir, surely we are better suited than you lot to investigate this child. If any foul magic is about then we would be better able to detect it.”
Janik was quickly interrupted during his offer of assistance when the middle brother (Viktor Takewood) spat on the ground and approached him with vitriol. “You would offer us help! It was your own unsteady hand that surely landed us in this situation! We all saw your hand waiver when you took the life of the goat. Surely the forest spirits allow no room for hesitation. They understand only action, direct and true. You would now dare to offer us help when you have damned my nephew to be stolen away from us!”
Janik responded with indignation, “What are these Forest Spirits that you would claim?” Viktor scoffed and called Janik daft for blinding himself to the forces of nature around him. “Do you not hear the water, ever churning below. Do you not feel the currents of wind upon your face. Would you claim to enter the woods and not hear the song of the spirits, not see the majesty of their creation about you? You call yourself a holy man and yet you blind yourself from the majesty all around you.”
Mikoyan put his hand on Viktor’s shoulder, attempting to calm him. He repeated his request that Janik depart and leave the family to their own devices. Janik reluctantly agreed, and the burners departed.
I really dropped the ball this session regarding passing the spotlight.
This session felt really exposition heavy to me. It had multiple NPCs telling lengthy stories about themselves or about the town history. I suppose that the players asked for the townsfolk to tell them the stories, but I was pretty exhausted by the end of the session.
I feel like the tone is going in the right direction, the mob is starting to amp up and foodstores are becoming a real threat with all these calamities ruining the harvest. I really liked using the ruse from session 3 (telling the crowd that they had a suspected witch that they would arrest that night) was used against the players in session 4 to demand they name their suspect. When they refused it angered quite a few townsfolk. Also I am excited about the front with the Takewood baby. Both the fact that the players not really sure if Lea is having a mental psychosis where she believes her daughter to be a changeling or if changelings are actually a thing that might be real, and also the fact that now the townsfolk who saw Janik mar the sacrificial ritual blame him for Lea’s condition, regardless of it being real or imagined.
I am excited that the party is going to go to the abandoned quicksilver mine for a change of scenery and potentially to break up the narrative pacing for a session. Although a significant reason they are going is to understand Arpad better so I am not sure that will really be changing the pace that significantly. I am wondering if I should still have a scene for each travel watch, or if I should only have a scene if we roll for a wandering monster. I am also wondering how I should treat the mine, if it should be a five room dungeon sort of session or more of a megadungeon, or a single scene/backdrop of something else happening. I will probably prep a few options and see what feels the most natural as we enter play and I see the player interest/intention.
My prep has been almost entirely NPC driven. I’ve primarily been identifying motivations for each NPC and trying to let that determine what they are doing. As a result, we have ended up with these complex webs of actions. I think this has made the town feel very “real” or “alive” to the players. As they got up from the table they made the comment “it feels like we are exploring an actual small town, where everyone knows everyone and has personal history and an opinion about everything.” I think that is the intention of this module, but I am observing that some amount of action morass seems like an inevitable result. Everything seems subjective, and the players are looking for something concrete and morally clear. I think this is partially just a play-culture thing where players are used to receiving objectively absolute answers during sessions “You see a dragon, it is breathing fire at you. What do you do?”. Afterall, since we are playing in a constructed environment the GM is the ultimate arbiter of the in-game objective reality. I think it is worth wading through this moral swamp. I believe that we are building towards something really meaningful, with NPCs that the players have actually connected with. Even last night, the party seemed genuinely concerned with the woman who refused to believe her child was her own. Their offers of help seemed to be genuine, and their willingness to back down seemed to come both from a place of caring and also a hesitancy to resort to violence against a superior force. As the players walked away from the table though, they were asking “that is a real condition right, where you believe people to be replicants or imposters? What is it called? Imposter syndrome?” I think this is the right sort of conversation to emerge from this style of play.
New Named NPCs
Mila Oakswail (Store Assistant)
Goran Warglory (Store Clerk)
Victoria Townsman (Storemaster) named but not met
Arpad Summerborn (Prospector)
Pepi Oldson (Littlewater Cook)
Lana Staffsend (The Alchemist’s Wife)
Aldus Blackwater (Holy Slave)
Viktor & Mikoyan Takewood (The Milkmaid’s Brothers)
Scene 1 – You have all been tasked to travel from Kastor to the town of Bridge to hunt a witch. Your patron, the Lady Osis, dispatched a seasoned Witch Hunter a week ago. The town sent word that he never arrived so she has sent you all as well, with the additional instruction to be careful along the road. The trip takes four days walking east. The road you have chosen is the well-worn road of the boundary wardens. You are deputized agents of the lady, and on top of your current charge it is your sworn duty to ensure only those who are licensed & permitted enter the Davokar forest to salvage the ruins.
As you crest a small rise, you see some dust coming from the road ahead. A two-mule team pulling a cart heavily laden with barrels rounds the corner. The two men slow their progress when they see you, but then wave and continue plodding towards you. What do you do?
The characters did not pause in their trek, continuing towards the mule team. Jannik said that he wanted to focus his attentions on the team and see if there was anything unusual about them. He succeeded on a perception roll and noticed that the travelers were well provisioned and wearing finely made travel clothes. These men seemed more like seasoned merchants and not any sort of rabble leaving Bridge fearing for their lives. He communicated that to the rest of the group, and as the mule cart neared they greeted the merchants.
The merchants responded with hearty greetings, pausing alongside the party and offering them a sample of the fine brandy in their barrels. The party readily assented, with the exception of the cleric who held back. After the cleric saw that the merchants were sampling their own wares, he accepted a swill. After a brief exchange, the merchants shared some rumors from Bridge, claiming: “fish are dead with blackened hand prints on them”, “a babe born with three eyes”, “the harvest rotted in the field” and other ill omens. The party took this news heavily, and then asked about the road ahead. The merchants said that they passed a dead horse the previous day, but had not investigated for there were some jackals about preying on the corpse.
Finally, the merchants told the group that if they liked the brandy they should stop by the still of Pepi Oldson and tell him that Red & Bran send their best regards.
Scene 2 – Another day has passed on the road. You see vultures circling ahead, above the low rolling hills. As you arrive, you see a few large birds picking at scraps on the scavenged corpse of a horse. You have each consumed one ration over the last day, please reflect that on your inventory. What to you do?
The characters spread out around the scene, pausing their journey to investigate if this might the horse of the missing Witch Hunter. After a successful investigation roll, Jannik noticed a bloody trail that led to a small copse of brush trees. At the same time, a successful perception roll alerted Marklech to a dust trail coming towards them from the direction of the Davokar forest. In the copse, they found a bloodied and tattered tabard of a witch hunter. They also found a saddle bag that had been cleared of its contents.
They took a defensive position atop a small hill, some kneeling in the high grass and others standing visible and alert, to await the arrival of whatever was raising the dust trail.
Scene 3 – Two haggard men stumble into view about 150 yards distant. One carries a large bundle beneath his arm, and the other carries a spear shaft that has been snapped off near the end. They seem exhausted and injured, continually glancing behind them as if fearful of pursuit. What do you do?
The party decided to alert the men of their presence, the ragged men seemed thankful to have found the party. They ran towards the members, falling down exhausted on the ground before them. They begged for help keeping them safe from the Davokar Elves who followed them. The party saw that the bundle was filled with poor quality salvage from ruins within the forest and that the men did not have any license for their salvage. Stanislav and Jannik accosted the men, rebuking them for trespassing upon the forest without permit.
Scene 4 – Nineteen lithe figures crest the hill in the distance, pausing briefly and taking a battle formation before advancing towards your position. These figures are tall and elegant, wearing bands of iron on their left biceps and matching armor. Many hold longbows, while some others carry long spears or longswords. They march in well-practiced formation, the archers take a position on a hill opposite yours. The leader holds no weapon and walks a few steps ahead of his honor guard, he looks to you for sign of your intention. What do you do?
Frederick the archer stepped forward and proffered his empty hands as he performed a slight forward bow. He had seen this gesture depicted on salvaged frescoes and fervently hoped that it was the proper greeting. The other party members followed suit, and the elf leader returned the gesture. His honor guard sheathed weapons and did likewise. The elf leader addressed the group in Elven. “We are Summer Elves of the Iron Pact. These brigands have broken the terms of the pact by raiding our realm and disturbing that which should not be disturbed. We demand that they and their ill-gotten bounty be handed over to us, as is our ancient right.” Jannik had studied Elven back at the academy, but he was more comfortable reading it than speaking it. Nevertheless, he stepped forwards to offer a greeting to the elf. In stuttering Elven, the cleric promised to accommodate the elves request by turning over the men and their salvage.
The leader seemed surprised, but nodded his thanks and indicated that the brigands should be brought to his guards. Jannik told the party in common what he and the elf had agreed to, and while some of them might have had qualms with handing humans over to the elves they did not voice them in light of the overwhelming numbers of the elvish host. The haggard men screamed in disbelief, and when Jannik went to grab one of them he got a dagger in the gullet for his efforts. Luckily, his chainmail deflected the blow. He responded by smiting the man with Sacred Flame, killing the weakened criminal.
Scene 5 – The brigand’s death rattle echoes through a suddenly tense and momentarily silent field. A scream of anguish suddenly splits the sky as the last remaining scavenger’s spirit breaks. His cry transforms into something unearthly as his eyes blacken and his body lifts from the ground as if a puppet on strings. The air darkens around him, and the blackness seemed to coalesce into the form of a large shadow humanoid. The man’s face hangs silent and expressionless and his veins are blackened from corruption. Please roll arcana to see if you know what is happening.
Stanislav was the only one who passed his arcana check to identify this for what it was, something people called “shadow corruption” or a “blight beast.” They say that if you spend too much time delving in the forest you can fall host to the darkness. Stanislav shouted “Blight Beast!” and the party took action. A few solid blows landed on the body of the brigand, with each blow the shadows seemed to dissipate slightly. The beast scratched Stanislav in response to his attack, leaving a sickly bruise. A volley of well-placed elven arrows dispatched the beast.
In the flurry of combat, the rogue Marklech succeeded in pocketing a couple Symbaric coins from the bag of salvage before returning the bag to the elves.
The elven leader commended the cleric for his rare willingness to abide the terms of the ancient treaty. In thanks, he offered a small scroll bearing the words “This human assisted Talrond of the Summer Guard to enforce the iron pact.” He also handed over a small vial of opaque glass, and said that it should be consumed with tea by one who has been exposed to the darkness of the Davokar blight.
The elves departed after mentioning that these brigands had a base camp at the edge of the woods. The group decided to investigate the camp to see if they might learn more about the fate of the missing witch hunter, despite knowing that this detour would add an additional day to their trip, and they would arrive in Bridge later than anticipated.
Scene 6 – You catch sight of the wrecked camp before you as the sun is setting. On the edge of the camp in a thick grass you notice a strange pulsing luminescence. What do you do?
The rogue Marklech had taken Magic Initiate, and introduced his spider familiar to the group at this time. The spider crawled his way through the grass to investigate the mysterious lights, and found that a number of bioluminescent beetles were crawling around some hastily buried human corpses. The party approached, hoping to scare the bugs away. The archer shot one of them as it flew around for a different position, and in response the whole host of beetles swarmed the party. The bugs spit a bioluminescent acid at the party members, but were slain without much hassle.
Frederich investigated the burial ground finding a leather satchel buried beside one of the men. He twisted his ankle in the process, but also noticed that there were other graves in the area that seemed more soundly dug. At this time the day was quickly descending into darkness. The men retreated to a nearby grove that Stanislav had identified as a secure site and prepared to camp for the night.
The cleric privately shared the truth about the elven vial with Marklech the rogue, asking him whether he thought it should be given to Stanislav who was complaining about his bruise from the blight beast or if he should keep the vial to study. They agreed that it would be better to study the vial and keep it a secret from the other men.
The party consumed another ration and camped through the night, each taking a turn at watch.
I first saw Symbaroum on Kickstarter in July of 2017, when the campaign for “The Witch Hammer” was underway. I was immediately hooked by the art and setting, eagerly backing the campaign at one of the higher levels so that I could get all of the books. When I got the PDFs I was in awe of the art, but felt overwhelmed by the presentation and had no idea what the game was really about. I searched online for actual plays, and I even joined a Twitch livestream of some group playing the game.
A lot of what was happening seemed familiar. At the time, I had been running a lot of Numenera so the player-side dice rolling didn’t bother me. While it was familiar, it was also just unique enough to be discouraging. I am the only GM in my group, and most of my players are still pretty content to play D&D 5th edition every week. As the GM, I have a lot of control over what to run for my players but ultimately need to respect player preference and run games that people are excited to play.
Symbaroum arrived at my house at a inopportune moment in my gaming life. My players were experiencing some acute fatigue from my Kickstarter driven system-of-the-week style of scheduling one-shots or month-long mini-campaigns. I was then (and still am) Kickstarter crazed, and my shelves were (and are) full of games that I hadn’t played or had barely skimmed.
Even so, Symbaroum has stuck out in my mind. Despite not having played the system, I backed the “Monster Codex” when it hit Kickstarter during November 2017. I kept going back to the books, and the setting continued to inspire. I would reference the art with other games that I ran, even using the Symbaroum GM screen to set the tone for other games. It was the game that I kept wanting to run, but the fates kept resisting me.
Lots of things can get in the way of running a new system, some of them are in the control of game developers but most exist outside of their influence. The presentation of game content in Symbaroum ultimately is not for me and provided a high amount of internal-resistance to being played, but I don’t want this to be a negative review and so I am not going to go into any of my specific criticisms that are a matter of personal preference.
I haven’t run a campaign for my players in the better part of a year, so when I recently started talking to them about the fact that I was interested in running a new campaign, we started discussing what to play. A few players said “anything,” others said “anything that we already know, no new systems please,” and a few other players said “I really only want to play 5e.”
I came up with a list of the things that I wanted in my campaign, and I realized that I could achieve them all with 5e. I came up with a list of the things I liked from Symbaroum, and I realized that I could hack them into 5e. My players were excited, they too love the art of Symbaroum and the implied setting. Now I could finally take all these books that were full of setting and lore inspiration and make them usable in a way that they never were to me as a complete system.
In my mind, Symbaroum is focused on the forest Davokar. The politics are just a backdrop and the personalities hardly matter. The history is vague and contradictory, every noble and faction tells it differently anyways. The players are all Ambrians, they matter to themselves and they are situated in the landscape. They migrated, they remember the great war and terror. They want to create a better life for themselves, or at least want the power to defend themselves against the hostile world.
There is a lot of rich content in the Symbaroum books. I didn’t know what to do with all of that content over the last year. It felt like I couldn’t access it. There are so many personalities and details that it boggles my mind, “How am I ever going to get any amount of this content across to my players?”
Now, I have a way to engage with that content and bring it to my table. Albeit, on my own terms.
“All games do not come from the same cookie cutter or jelly mould. Each has a heart set in mechanics and raw concepts, but in building a new game the designers imbue the basics with their own flavour, theme and focus. When we step into Ambria, we enter a world created by a small group of writers and that world has a slant of their own. Coming from any other game, we must cleanse our palette of preconceptions and try hard not to shoehorn Symbaroum into a form like those we have just left behind.
Symbaroum is not Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, nor The One Ring, Genesys, RuneQuest or Warhammer. While you can read the Core Book and use the setting to run another game with another system, the best approach to actually play Symbaroum requires you set aside your hunger for spell ranges, feat trees, battle mats and point-based character balance and embrace the idiosyncrasies wide-eyed and open-minded.”
I have played in and/or run 32 different RPG systems since my first TTRPG session in 2015. I like things and have learned from each of them. On top of that, I have read, skimmed, or played hundreds of modules, splat books, adventures, monster manuals, blog posts, gaming zines, tweets and G+ posts.
When I land on a book that lodges in my imagination and consciousness for more than an initial skim through, I get excited. When I am excited about a book, the way I channel that excitement is by hacking the content into a form that will be usable by me at my table with my group.
It feels very unproductive to read anyone talk about the “best” way to play a system. Different groups want different things and different GM’s run games differently. At the moment, our hobby feels full of people drawing lines in the sand and planting flags. I believe that we should each be conscious of our actions and engagement within this space. I want my actions to make play culture more diverse, divergent, individual, and free-form. I want to make accessible tools that can be useful for GMs regardless of system.
I understand that game developers create a game with a certain experience in mind. I run and play lots of PbtA games that are clearly designed for a specific play experience. As a GM I am very intentional about player motivation and intent around the games. Symbaroum might have been created to encourage a specific type of play, but choosing to engage with it differently should not be viewed as an insult or as an act of resistance.
In my mind, hacking a game is a compliment. It is a love letter to the game to like it enough to make it your own when it would be easier to use a system neutral setting or something already written for 5e. I want to continue posting about how I am hacking Symbaroum, but I am not sure if there is even an audience of people interested in this type of engagement. I hope that I can make the setting more accessible to GMs by creating tools that I will use at my table and by sharing Actual Play reports of how we are engaging with the setting. I hope that my engagement is viewed not as an insult to the system, but as a contribution to the community.
A few players were running late, so I decided to open the session with a discussion on expectations/hopes about the campaign. Most of the players I had met with prior to session zero, to talk about my intentions for the campaign and hear if they had any concerns with my choice to limit the game to human characters and to introduce some game hacks. As a group, the four players present talked about what they were excited about:
The darker setting/tone and the idea that magic is somewhat taboo
Playing at a physical table & playing with a more serious tone – not adventure zone
Having a regular time to get out of the house to hang out with friends, hoping for a longer campaign
Exploring the setting and learning more about the mechanics that we will be hacking into 5e
I was grateful that the players were excited about many of the same things that I was hopeful to do with the campaign. I think that meeting with them ahead of time to discuss my aspirations about the campaign was helpful to get everyone on the same page during session zero.
After one player discussed mechanics, I told the group that I did not want to run a game where character optimization or balanced encounters were a core focus. I shared a bit about the fact that while I do know the rules and want the rules to guide 95% of what happens at the table, I believe that game tone is the most important element. That as long as we have a shared understanding about the tone of the setting, that we can each enjoy the game and have varied sessions that speak to the interests of each player. I want combat to be fun, but I will not usually prepare a series of “set-piece” encounters for any given session. Further, if there are times when we aren’t sure how the rules would work in a particular situation, I will want us to discuss it as a table and choose the option that best fits into the established tone and fiction.
I transitioned us into gameplay by passing out pregenerated “level 10” characters. I used a stripped down character sheet for each one that only had a handful of attributes, abilities, and values. I told my players that we would be playing with cinematic rules for the purposes of this session zero. I had prompted them by emailing that we would be playing out a historic vignette that would have occurred a generation prior to our campaign. I elaborated on this idea at the table, by giving some narration:
“You are elite troops who have spent your lives fighting a generational war against the Dark Lords. A few years ago the king died and the young queen, only 12, picked up his spear and has led the charge against the undead foes. Unfortunately, despite all the gains of late, the young queen was captured within the past month. This loss has galvanized the army, and now you are with a group of templars leading the charge against the Vampire’s Castle where the queen is being held.”
I asked the players to name their pre-gen characters, letting them know that north-east European names would be the norm. We ended up with: Peter Petchkoff, Piotr Metchnik, Akman, Gregor, and (after Gregor died) Irena.
Scene 1 – Undead Masses
“A trebuchet payload breaches the tower nearest your position, the four of you run through the opening before the stonework crumbles behind you. You are isolated from your battalion. Ahead of you in the dark tower you see one of The Undying. He speaks words of arcane power that awaken the many servitors along the two walls. These skeletal troops wear the armor of your nation, they are the animated corpses of your fallen comrades. The air reeks of carrion and decay. A blue circle fades into life and the Mage disappears, teleportation magic. The circle is still active, but fading. What do you do?”
I had miniatures set out on the table, the players were on one end of a hallway. Each side of the hall had 8 zombie/skeletons and one giant flesh golem. The teleportation circle was about 40 feet away from them. After initiative was rolled, only one player was able to act prior to the horde. The greataxe wielding fighter (Akman) took out two of the lesser undead, and then all the players were swarmed. The masses of foes didn’t do too much damage, but the golems began pounding away at the heroes. The wizard summoned a wall of fire, killing eight undead and wounding a flesh golem. The cleric healed one of the fighters who had been struck by the flesh golem, and then ran towards the portal. The others fought as they could, Akman realized that one of the zombies was the animated corpse of his brother, who had fallen in combat against the Dead Nation. The wizard ended up isolated on one side of the room, and both flesh golems charged him. They pounded poor Gregor into the ground as the other three characters stepped into the teleportation circle.
Scene 2 – War Room & Hallway
“You emerge from the teleportation circle into a round room, ringed with similar circles of power. They are all dull & inert, the one you stepped out from fades to grey. The center of the room holds a heavy wooden table, covered with maps, books and other objects. It appears to be a war room, a place of strategizing. The room is ringed with leaded glass windows. The sounds of the siege echo from far below. You realize you are near the top of the main keep. Some burning pitch flies past the window, exploding in a blaze against a nearby tower. There is one large door leading out from this room. A trail of fresh blood leads from a nearby teleportation circle through the ajar door. What do you do?”
The group took a moment to mourn for Gregor before heading towards the door to scout. They discovered a hallway leading to a large door about 50’ away at the opposite end. Another large door was midway down on the left wall, and a small reinforced door was set into the right wall near the far end. Voices could be heard down the hallway from the room at the end.
The group listened first at the door to the left. They heard numerous footsteps running away from the door. The blood trail led through this door.
The characters proceeded to the reinforced door, and heard a rattle of chains within. At this point, I turned to the player who had been playing as Gregor and told him that he was a woman in her late 20’s who had been captured along with the queen. I asked him what class he was, and he chose to be a rogue named Irena. I said that Irena has been plotting her escape these last few weeks, and has learned how to work her chains loose.
We had a good scene with Irena asking the party who they were with the opening question “Are you the Dead or the Living?” before freeing her from her captivity.
The cleric (Petchkoff) soon convinced Irena that they were allies, but the commotion of the conversation alerted the well-trained ears of the vampire steward in the next room. Filip the steward appeared in the doorway, receiving an arrow to the chest and an axe blow to boot. The party was dissuaded that their blows seemed to barely hinder the vampire, who then bit the fighter and regained his full health.
Petchkoff held forward his holy symbol and channeled his divinity, Prios the Lightbringer. Instead of a normal turning a miracle then occurred, waves of sun fire filled the hallway and reduced Filip to a pile of smoking ash. After the blinding brilliance faded, the cleric found that the holy symbol he held was now a sphere that appeared as a sun.
Scene 3 – The Dark Lord’s Chamber
“In the silence following the miracle of Prios, you each feel something vibrating the very air of this hallway. In tune with your own heartbeats, the very chamber before you seems to thrum with a heart of it’s own. Beyond the charred doorway you behold a large octagonal chamber with an enormous black iron chandelier hanging far above. The chandelier holds enormous red wax candles that burn crimson. Each candle seems to contain a skeletal corpse within the wax. Opposite you is an enormous bronze and iron sarcophagus set against the far wall. Nex to that chamber is a smaller door, where Irena believes the queen to be held. Laughter fills the chamber, as the Dark Lord whispers telepathic promises of death to each of you.”
Akman ran to investigate the crypt while Metchnik, Petchkoff, & Irena opened the door to the queen’s cell. They freed the queen, who was extremely weak and frail from torture and starvation. She reached out a hand to Metchnik, asking who it was that freed her and offering her blessing against the dark lord. Metchnik received her boon, standing up and applying a vial of blessed oil to both of his short swords.
The sarcophagus opened releasing a thin fog and ten ghasts. The cleric cast holy aura, giving advantage to his allies and disadvantage to the undead foes. After a round of fighting, the fog thickened such that all were effectively blinded. In this chaos, a few ghasts were slain. In the following round, the chandelier flames roared as a deep arcane voice boomed out from the crypt. The flames seemed to depart from the candles, each character saw in their peripheral vision the apparitions of many flaming skeletons flying through the room, but they could never see one clearly, only in their peripheral vision.
These flaming wraiths seared away some of the fog, reducing it from heavy to light. In the light fog, they witnessed a 10’ tall hulking vampire lord emerge from the crypt.
During each round of combat, I described sounds of an approaching force of templars. As the lord emerged, the templars were attempting the breach the iron portcullis that closed off the chamber after the players entered.
The players fought a last round of combat against the giant vampire. Metchniks’ blessed blades seemed particularly effective, and the dark lord’s skin blistered where the blades cut him. The lord spoke arcane words and suddenly appear as multiple identical images. The lord then pointed at Irena and spoke words of death and disease. Irena was reduced to 4hp after failing her con save.
At this point we faded to cutscene, narrating the resolution of the battle as the templars entered the chamber. I worked in the prep questions (below) to the players as they narrated the resolution of their characters.
We talked about these events being part of the lore of the world, and I told the players that they could narrate the fate of each of the characters and also describe whether there was any link between their campaign character and their pre-gen. We had some really good discussion around this topic, the players all really loved Gregor the Wizard who died in the first scene. Since Irena the Rogue was at 4 hp, the player decided that she was mortally wounded in the upcoming fight. He was somewhat gleeful and chuckled “I’ve never had two characters die in one session before!”
With the rest of the time, the players created their lvl 1 characters for our upcoming campaign. They each rolled for attributes and together chose to play two Fighters, a Paladin, a Rogue, and a Cleric.
The only prep I really did for this whole session was writing the following four questions, some of them I was able to get into a scene but the rest of them were answered during the end narration:
You come face to face with your brother, now raised to serve as undead in the dark lord’s army.
How does he appear to you?
What family heirloom do you recover from his body?
In the tower of the dark lord, in a moment of respite you notice an ancient tome of power.
Is it in a script that you understand?
Does anyone see you take it?
Surrounded by skeletal foes, you surge with the holy fire of Prios. After the blaze recedes, a blessed object now rests in your hand.
What form did the holy artifact take?
Was it handed over to the church or kept secret?
After rescuing the queen from her captors, the queen gave you a boon.
What did you ask for?
How did it go awry?
I used the Blood tables in Kabuki Kaiser’s Castle Gargantua to come up with descriptions of the rooms.
I’ve been thinking about hacking Symbaroum’s Corruption into 5e by introducing the following mechanic to my game. Let me know if you can think of a more simple way to have a similar effect.
All players begin with a Shadow Threshold of 5.
Shadow Damage occurs when an adventurer is exposed to corrupted forces, places, and powers. You may recover Shadow Damage by performing complex rituals, burning ceremonial herbs, resting in sanctified places, or visiting blessed healers. Actions that give Shadow Damage:
Using a tainted power or ritual: 1 Shadow Damage, or varies per power
Using tainted artifacts: 1 Shadow Damage, or varies per artifact
Damage from shadow-tainted foe: 1 Shadow Damage per blow, or varies per ability
Tainted areas: 1 Shadow Damage per day, hour, or per exposure to source
Shadow Scarring occurs when the character’s soul has been indelibly marked by their experiences. Shadow damage cannot be reduced below the total number of Shadow Scars. Shadow Scarring is suffered when:
Binding an artifact to oneself to be able to use its powers: 1 Shadow Scar
Learning a tainted power or ritual: 1 Shadow Scar
A character’s Shadow Damage reaches the character’s Shadow Threshold: 1 Shadow Scar
Levels of Scarring
At Least 1 Shadow Scar
The corruption can be detected with the Witchsight ability and rituals like Holy Smoke. Temporary Corruption can be resolved with a short or long rest.
Shadow Damage above Shadow Threshold
The adventurer develops a temporary shadow mark that is plainly visible without divination magic or ritual. If you have shadow scars equal to the shadow threshold, the mark becomes permanent.
Shadow Damage is 2x Shadow Threshold
The adventurer loses all control of themselves, the shadows have taken over. This often manifests as an immediate possession of the adventurer by a shadow beast.
Example: After spending 3 nights in the dark heart of the woods, each character has taken 3 shadow damage. During the morning of the 4th day, the party finally stumbles upon the source of corruption. The harmful radiation of the artifact penetrates their armor, making them feel as if they are freezing, they all take 1 shadow damage immediately bringing them each to 4. The wizard is prepared for this, and throws a specially crafted cloth over the artifact. As soon as it is covered, the adventurers all breathe more easily and the woods around them seem to brighten.
Later, the party takes a short rest and the wizard spends some time meditating with the artifact. His meditations are filled with visions of snow and ice. (The GM does not tell the wizard any specific mechanics about the special abilities of the artifact, only flavor) The wizard decides to attune with the artifact, this gives him one Shadow Scar but does not give him additional shadow damage.
In the next scene, a rival party of explorers stumbles upon the group. They demand that the artifact be handed over. The wizard exposes the artifact, which is no longer harmful to the group as it has been attuned. He unleashes the power of the artifact on the rival adventurers, despite not knowing what it will do. The GM forces all party members except for the wizard to make constitution saves against the arctic chill, likewise rolling saves for each of the rivals. Those who fail freeze solid (5d10 cold damage), half taken on save. The wizard does not take cold damage, but does take 1d4 shadow damage taking him over his Shadow Threshold. He takes another scar as a result of his Shadow Damage exceeding his Shadow Threshold, and his veins blacken and grow pronounced through his skin as he is now temporarily Shadow Marked. The GM then explains the rules of the artifact ability (all other targets within 60 ft of wizard take 5d10 cold damage, constitution save vs. DC 18 for half.)
The cleric has survived, and rifles through the rival parties gear for the ceremonial herbs that they stole from the group earlier. When he finds them, the group takes a short rest as the cleric cleanses the souls of each surviving party member. The wizard’s black veins fade back to normal after the ritual, but now that he has 2 shadow scars he cannot fully heal. Every party member now has 0 shadow damage, except for the wizard who still has 2 shadow damage.
I’ve been planning a game in the Symbaroum setting. I have been waffling about how to run the forest. I had thought about trying to break it into hexes, but the forest is very large and that seems tedious. The system seems to assume I will be playing it very “trad” and planning each session out ahead of time, but that is not how I prep my games.
I really like running point-crawl one-shots, but I have not thought through about how you might slowly evolve a point-crawl over the length of a campaign. I think that I will have a point crawl map with two main elements, nodes and paths. Both nodes and paths will have a variety of tags, that will have mechanical implications. I want to flesh out some of those implications over a series of blog posts.
To start, paths might simply have the following tags:
Rumored Path – Traverse in 1d4x the standard time. 2x Random Encounter chance.
Rough Path – Traverse in standard length. 1x Random Encounter chance.
Trodden Path – Traverse in half time. 1x Random Encounter chance.
Rumored Paths might be overheard in a tavern, hinted at in a notebook, or sketched on a rough map. Rough Paths would be described by an experienced adventurer, depicted on a detailed map, or shown to the party by a tracker. A trodden path is a commonly known and traveled upon.
Likewise, nodes might have a variety of tags to describe the likelihood of treasure, danger, competition, and corruption. I am still thinking about what number of tags is useful versus just being overkill crunch for something I would be better off not having written down.