[Skull & Shackles] Bilge Rats and Brawlers

Skull & Shackles: The Wormwood Mutiny CoverLast time in Skull & Shackles, Eric (Felix Cailean), Joey (Lady Viola Leona Eudonius), John (Jetsam ibn Abbasid ibn Yunus al-Bhar; Jetsam al-Bhar for short), Tyler (Morley Bishop), with GM Luke, found themselves at the close of their second night aboard the Wormwood. What would the night and days to come hold for the motley assortment of pressganged souls? Whatever may come, it would play out on a big flip chart showing the multiple levels of Wormwood, painstakingly drawn out by Luke.

On the third day out of Port Peril, everyone works industriously at their assigned tasks: sewing sails, manning the rigging, slaughtering a pig for meals and so on. During a break in his labors, Felix approaches Phipps, the man who confronted him below decks and left a knife wound as a remembrance. Cailean wants to mend bridges by offering to heal the sailor’s own wounds. Phipps prefers to loudly denounce Cailean as a witch, before moving to accusations of mutinous acts. Scourge is brought in at that, but dismisses Phipp’s accusation. The scar forming on Felix’s cheek, signifying his first strike, reminds everyone that the man really should watch his step.

“They don’t smile on education where you’re from, do they?”
— Felix Cailean

Meanwhile, down in the middle hold, Jetsam notes there is little of interest down here — except the hulking giant of a man chained to the foremast. Owlbear Hartshorn, as Jetsam learns he is called, metes out discipline when called upon. Hartshorn’s scarred, meaty hands show the kind of discipline he deals out. Owlbear is rather proud to show off his collection of teeth. Whatever he knocks from a recipient of “discipline,” he is allowed to keep. Hartshorn passes away the rest of his time here in the hold. Jetsam plants the seeds of friendship by bringing Hartshorn some of the raw crabs he so enjoys.

On deck, Viola speaks with Giffer Tibbs, Wormwood‘s lady gnome sailor. Eudonia is somewhat fascinated, having never met a gnome before. In an attempt at a semblance of the normality she misses, Viola invites Tibbs to join her in taking tea. Of course, this requires Viola to find some tea first. Croup the cook can’t offer any tea leaves, herbs or other substances, but he can certainly supply hot water. The conversation, guided by Viola, turns to the Wormwood‘s past cargo. So far as Croup can remember, they have never captured a “fashion ship,” laden with the ultimate — to Viola — prize of shoes and bolts of fine cloth. There’s little Harringan wouldn’t sell, Croup says. And that’s all the cook will offer, unwilling to say a word out loud against the captain.

In ship’s stores, Bishop approaches Cut-throat Grok. He comes at the conversation with the angle of “what does Grok want?” but apparently what Grok wants is to go run an errand and conspicuously leave the stores open. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Bishop paws through the pile of good stuff. He comes away with a bottle of fine Chelaxian brandy, which seems like it may make a useful bargaining chip someday. It’s easy to trade away grog rations, but for the more refined palate, something smoother will be required to grease the wheels.

The night finds Bishop prowling the hold. Wormwood is low on cargo, but has plenty of oil and ballista-related equipment. The ladder to the officer’s quarters is a tempting target, but the evening hours, when the officers are likely in their quarters rather than on deck, don’t seem like the right time. Bishop files that “to do” item for later.

Upon on deck, Viola approaches Mr. Scourge. She proposes designing uniforms for the crew, to foster morale and comradeship. Of course, the only cloth on the ship is canvas. Is it possible that someday they might capture a ship laden with fine cloth? Maybe, Scourge returns, and that day is pay day, when the hold is full and everyone gets their share. The prospect of getting paid strikes Viola as a new, most appealing thought.

Scourge’s violin catches Lady Viola’s eye. She compliments his playing and wonders if there has ever been a Wormwood ensemble. Scourge snorts derisively, but she forges on. If Viola can find a partner, Scourge may find it in himself to take a pass at something approaching a waltz. It is a resigned Jetsam al-Bhar who steps up to be Viola’s dance partner. They acquit themselves gracefully on the deck as Scourge plays something rather more like a waltz than he let on at first.

Felix is preoccupied with Cayden’s nectar, mead, and the brewing thereof. Having lost most of his stores of sacramental beverage, it falls upon the Caileanite to serve his god by brewing the drink dear to him. And if an unexpected supply of mead makes the crew happy, that’s as well. The major challenge is finding enough metal to make a brewing tun. Metal comes at a premium on the open sea. With luck, they may capture or stumble across a source, but there’s not much to be done in the meantime. And for whatever troubles Croup goes to in this endeavor, Felix can make it worth his while in mead.[1]

“I hope everyone enjoys dinner!”
— Morley Bishop is off to kill rats

The next day, Bishop makes a fool of himself casting nets to gather up fish for the galley stores. He casts the net, but completely fails to secure or hold on to it in any way. He watches forlornly as the net is lost in the wake of Wormwood. Shortly thereafter, his forlorn expression switches to resignation as he is sent down into the bilges to kill rats as punishment.

In fact, Felix is assigned to the bilges as well, just moments before scrawny Jack Scrimshaw comes running up to Plugg. There’s something larger than usual in the bilges. It took a huge chunk out of Scrimshaw’s arm. Plugg calls for volunteers to go down with Bishop and Cailean. Anyone who goes will get the rest of the day to themselves, a tempting alternative to laboring in the scorching sun. Jetsam and Viola step forward after only a little thought.

Down in the bilge, the heat is stifling. Felix is uncomfortably reminded of his time in the sweat box. He and Jetsam, the latter clad in his armor, feel the heat most acutely. After only a few moments of acclimating to the heat, cramped quarters and sheer stench, things begin moving in the muck. Six over-sized bilge rats burst to the surface and set upon the group.

The rats snap and bite, sinking their disease-ridden jaws into everyone.[2] In the course of the battle, Viola acquits herself with particular vigor, stomping one rat to pulp. That doesn’t stop her from shrieking with every rat’s lunge and snap, of course. Morley gets the tar chewed out of him by the rat’s razor-sharp teeth.

When the rats are dispatched, further inspection of the bilge for more vermin reveals only the bilge pump, sets of manacles anchored to the hull — as the bilge doubles as the brig — and scatterings of gold and silver pieces, which Morley pockets along with some vials that might be holy water. There’s also a whole suit of armor and a war razor down there. There must be some use for those, right?

Ever the forward-thinker, Felix asks Morley if he might be able to fashion a duplicate key for the brig’s manacles. A quick inspection of the lock’s workings shows it will be a piece of cake for the archaeologist.[3]

Back on deck, Morley flags Sandra Quinn down, who’s busy running from officer to officer with messages. The stench rolling off the four rat-killers practically knocks her back. Just to get them away as quickly as possible, she cures as much of their wounds as she able. After Quinn flees their stench cloud to return to her duties, Jetsam takes advantage of his aromatic condition to taunt Phipps, going so far as to drip muck all over the vengeful sailor.

After cleaning up, Viola’s quest for tea continues. This time she goes to Habley Quarney, the ship’s surgeon. Surely a physician would have a store of herbs for infusions and draughts? As it happens, no. Quarney takes some grim delight in explaining that his three tools — the hammer, saw and pliers — apply to both of his roles aboard Wormwood: ship’s surgeon and carpenter. Viola recognizes the potential usefulness of a surgeon’s mate to Quarney’s work and brings it up — because anything is better than swabbing — but the sawbones doesn’t share her vision.

With time in hand and confident that everyone in the crew is about their business, Bishop turns his attention back to the officer’s quarters. Taking the low road through the middle hold, he ascends into a haze of acrid smoke. It has the distinctive scent of opium, which, it turns out, wafts from the pipe of Peppery Longfarthing, the one officer on the ship who isn’t on deck at the moment. She eyes Bishop. He eyes Longfarthing. Rifling anyone’s belongings is right out with a witness, stoned or not. Morley opts for Plan B: building alliances through physical relations. So that happens.[4]

“A gentlemen never tells. And neither does Morley.”
— Jetsam al-Bhar

Grok finds herself approached by both Felix and Jetsam. Felix wants to swap the armor found in the bilge for his own, nicer set. In the course of the deal, he reclaims most of the belongings he held when taken back at the Formidably Maid. Jetsam gets gold for the war razor. He then goes to Croup to get crabs for Hartshorn. The giant tucks in with gusto, grinning widely as his teeth crush the crabs whole. Jetsam steels himself to partake and holds his retching in check. Hartshorn lets slip that he gets to take someone’s teeth tomorrow. Clearly someone has displeased Mr. Plugg.

Exhausted twice over, Morley hits his berth for the night. Felix tries to rally the crew to his cause of tracking down Jarreth Kay, but the prospect of taking on a dread pirate lord gets a lukewarm reaction from a boneweary crew. Viola goes to Scourge to share a spot on the railing with grog and pipe. When the mate brings up the prospect of sex, the proper lady is utterly appalled at such a crass proposition. Scandalize, she huffs away.

The morning of the fifth day, Viola is assigned message running duties. She gives Scourge the coldest shoulder, then takes exception to being called “girl.” With the inevitability of a glacier, this leads to Eudonia tied to the mast for the day. Sighing, Felix goes to Scourge, but before he can say anything, Viola blusters, digging a deeper hole to Scourge’s amusement. This time, Felix stalks away, stone expression fixed on his face. Viola seems to be losing the support of her tireless champion.

Exploring the galley, Morley finds a truly staggering amount of alcohol secreted around the place. Most of it’s rather nice, but Croup insists on dipping into the standard grog stores for his regular doses of secret sauce. There’s also a cookbook with some interesting recipes[5] and a magical grapple on the wall.

During the day, Felix and Jetsam made inroads with other crew members.[6] Rosie the halfling has some pointed comments on Felix’s recent choices. She accepts his offer of sparring, though, as he’ll learn from the loss. Jetsam works in the rigging with Shivikah, a Mwangi woman who traded slaves, become an effective slave herself. Jetsam doesn’t deny his family’s participation in the flesh trade.

That night, Mr. Plugg gathers the crew for an announcement. He is very pleased to offer a show for their amusement demonstrating the value of discipline. Cautioning Scourge that Cailean is a rising star on the Wormwood, Plugg invites Cailean to the mainmast, where Viola is still lashed. Plugg hands Felix the cat o’ nine tails, inviting him to mete out the punishment that Viola earned with her lip that morning. Felix hefts the weapon in his hand for a moment . . . and throws it overboard.[7] This does not go over well with Plugg. Since flogging, smashing hands, the sweat box and bilge duty seem to have no effect on Cailean’s truculence, Plugg declares everyone else in the crew will be flogged as Felix watches. Dozens of eyes silently shoot daggers at the Caileanite. Not only that, Viola is hanged from the yardarm. Once it’s all over, Scourge whips Felix himself across the belly for good measure. And if any trace of magical healing is detected, that will be the end of it forever — which is a fairly ominous warning to Sandra Quinn, on consideration.

But it’s not over yet. Plugg calls up Hartshorn from the hold. Owlbear and Felix are to brawl. Bishop immediately starts taking side bets. Plugg throws a purse of gold down on the deck for Owlbear to win. There are few wagers that don’t favor Owlbear. One of the stand-outs is Viola, who bets her shoes on Felix.

The two fighters circle the ring at first. Hartshorn howls like a beast, shaking Felix to his core. As the blows begin to come, Felix focuses on blocking, punching Hartshorn’s fists off course, throwing the giant himself. As this happens, Viola slips off to the side, starts fashioning a lasso out of some handy rope.

“We may have to do this mutiny real quick.”
— Felix

Hartshorn’s next uppercut sends Felix sprawling. Everyone assumes it’s all over a matter of time now. Viola moves to the next part of her plan: securing one of the lasso to a water barrel. Patchsalt, a ship’s officer, throws a dagger into Viola’s side when he spots her intending to interfere with the brawl. Cailean seems like he’s almost about to come back, but falls all the same. Hartshorn collects his payment in teeth from those scattered on the deck when Jetsam intercedes to stop too many teeth from coming fresh from Felix’s jaw. He’s almost crushed by Hartshorn in a hug for his trouble. Once Felix picks himself up off the deck and removes any further teeth ready to come loose, Scourge administers the second cut on his opposite cheek. The next strike must be death.

“I told you about the daba’s poison tail and claws. You insist on grabbing one, the other or both.”
— Jetsam to Felix

The dawn of the sixth day finds Morley wracked by fever. He keeps his head down and attends to his tasks. Jetsam goes to the gunner’s mate, Kipper, to offer his services as a trained siege engineer. The mate doesn’t seem enthused about the prospect of competition for his job.

That night, Sandra Quinn calls all four of them together. She calls them out on their crap for alienating the Wormwood crew. Not only flaunting the ship’s discipline but endangering everyone else with stiff-necked chivalry. She chides Viola for not adapting to the situation. Eudonia, who’s feigned muteness since her hanging, listens quietly with an expression of growing resolve.

The best way off Wormwood, Quinn continues, is when they capture a prize ship. That ship will require a crew from the ranks of the Wormwood. Harringan has never left Wormwood, so it will be a chance to get away from him and most of his officers. Now is the time to be forming friendships and alliances so that this new ship, whatever it may be, will be a more hospitable place to everyone aboard.

“Ma — wom — gnome overboard!”
— Jetsam

The seventh day is a sick day, as Morley’s fever rages unchecked and Viola and Felix both begin to feel its effects. On the eighth day, a storm hits. Everyone is called up into the rigging, fever or not. There is no rest. Handfuls of hard tack and water are gulped at posts. Tibbs is washed overboard by a wave, but Jetsam and Felix work together to haul her back in. By the time the storm abates, everyone is too tired to do anything but fall gratefully into their bunks.[8]

[1] For a Caileanite, Felix sure gives away a lot more booze than he manages to drink.

[2] Felix, Viola and Morley all contracted filth fever, which led to explanation, clarification and reclarification of when that disease would set in and take its toll.

[3] Morley critically failed his Disable Device check, so that will be a fun surprise for Felix at some point — assuming he isn’t outright executed.

[4] I had no idea that would happen in a million years. But it was an opportunity that presented itself in the moment and if there’s one thing I’ve decided about Morley, it’s that he takes opportunities when they come. It started out as a silly comment on my part about pizza delivery and the plumber arriving, but Luke took the intent as seducing the character. I figured “what the hell?” and we drew a curtain across the scene once dice were rolled about attractiveness, etc.

[5] To give Morley a much-needed bonus to any future Profession (Cook) checks.

[6] There are times I feel like every NPC on the ship is a button to mash. “Have I spammed Rosie the halfling enough? Does she like me yet?”

[7] And that was one of those moments where everyone at the table who wasn’t Eric, who alleged he knew what he was doing, simultaneously cringed.

[8] At this point, Luke revealed that the first twenty-one days of the Wormwood’s journey are mapped out in this day-night cycle. We came to the agreement we’d start to play through those days via email, as well as compressing time in future sessions.

A Dark Gathering 2012

This past Memorial Day weekend, I went to A Dark Gathering and played a crap-ton of Call of Cthulhu, certainly more than I’ve ever played before in a 48 hour period. A Dark Gathering modeled itself on a troll hoot, a micro-convention of friends who descend upon a conveniently placed hotel to spend the weekend role-playing. In this case, we met about halfway between the furthest flung contingents, putting us just outside Syracuse, New York[1] for a weekend of horror gaming.

All the gaming went down in a pair of suites — really larger sleeping rooms with floorspace for a banquet table and ample chairs each. There was a rough schedule of who would run what when. Nothing before the afternoon, so there was plenty of time for late night socializing and long-running scenarios. This was a welcome change for me, because I usually find myself rushing around in the early morning, particularly when working Carnage. My body wakes up on its own schedule regardless of when I go to sleep the night before, but having the morning to myself each day was most welcome — and even then, I still took Saturday night off. Turns out surviving a weekend of ample socialization without becoming visibly cranky means I need to block out plenty of me time.

I myself played in three Call of Cthulhu scenarios, each with a different GM and style. Friday evening, Andre Kruppa ran “The Burning Stars,” a scenario from Chaosium’s Terrors from Beyond anthology in his super theatrical style with lighting, music cues and props that help set the mood for some grim role-playing. That was the first time I needed a flashlight to check my character sheet or read the dice. Saturday afternoon’s “Any Port in a Storm,” run by Robin Lea, was a palate-cleanser in that it was more of a whimsical set-up with investigators for a paranormal reality show getting caught up in extra-dimensional hijinks — mind you, more than half the group still died, two from in-fighting and one from failure to unplug first, but it was all in good fun. I was completely unsubtle about my character’s secret in this one and enjoyed it immensely. Sunday afternoon I played in Tom Loney‘s “Fever Dream,” where the traditional set-up of being called to your dying uncle’s house ends much as one might expect in the Call of Cthulhu milieu.

While I took notes on all three games I played because it’s become habit by now, I’m on the fence about recapping them in as much detail as I have been the Pathfinder campaigns. That’s a lot of recapping and I find myself being more sensitive to spoiling scenarios that aren’t readily accessible as purchasable products for some reason — and there’s a huge cult of secrecy around Andre’s games, even when they’re published scenarios.

The hoot model has a lot going for it: small, intimate, loosely organized, relatively easy to arrange and potentially more affordable than a typical convention weekend. The flip side of a closed gathering is there’s less opportunity for the serendipity of discovering new games by wandering by a table. The interaction of extended networks can replicate that, though.

A Dark Gathering was a fun, tiring weekend. I got to hang out with friends I don’t normally see, make some more and do way more role-playing than I normally get to.

[0] N.b. Tom’s written his own account of the weekend in five parts. Robin’s record has pictures.

[1] And home of the Dinosaur BBQ, a restaurant I adored in my college days. That was a strong motivator, I can’t deny.

The Immortal Codex for WitchCraft

Immortal Codex cover

The cover of the Immortal Codex.

Discussion last week on RPGnet about WitchCraft and other urban fantasy games has got my thoughts turning around that game again. First the Gilchrist Trust crossed into the WitchCraft world. Then a passing reference to a self-published game called Immortal Invisible War led me to the Immortal Codex, a fan supplement for WitchCraft.

Claudia Silva took the format of a typical WitchCraft supplement and ported over wholesale the background and set-up of the Himsati immortals for use in Unisystem. I’m not familiar with the Invisible War, but it looks like a pretty gnarly, gonzo sort of urban fantasy with the resurgence of gods and dragons erupting into modern day as the shards of the mad god called the Sanguinary still lurk within mankind.

[Carrion Crown] Adventurer’s Holiday 2: Weekend at Vorkstag and Grine’s

Trial of the Beast coverDue to the demands of real life on a couple players, myself included, we weren’t able to meet this week to continue playing Carrion Crown.

I’m on the edge of my seat, personally. When we paused last time, the unruly spectators in the courtroom seemed on the verge of moving from “unruly” to “rioting” as the junior volunteer legal defense squadron punched hole after hole in the prosecution’s circumstantial case against the Beast. The likelihood of making it to the third day of the trial looks mighty slim, unless Lepidstadt has some truly exceptional crowd control measures — mass hold person, maybe?

Also, someone came to Held Action on Monday with the search query “beast of lepidstadt as a follower.” Is that not the best idea you’ve ever heard?

Millennium’s Edge: The Trinity 2997 Project

Let’s make it Trinity Thursday, shall we?

Millennium’s Edge is another fan project for the science fiction role-playing game Trinity. This one skips ahead almost a thousand years to final years of the third millennium. Almost half a quadrillion humans are scattered among the planets of the Milky Way galaxy. After a long war against a resurgence of Aberrants, phenomenally powerful but twisted humans with an appetite for destruction, many of those worlds are isolated or lost.

Now, as human history approaches its fourth millennium, the mysterious Æon Institute emerges from centuries of self-imposed exile beyond the Rim to once again unite the galaxy in peace and enlightenment. Its agents, the psychomorphs, bring interstellar contact, guidance and long-lost knowledge to the Three Million. The Æonites have a huge task ahead of them, some would say an insurmountable task, and many do not welcome their return. But they have on their side three advantages: the power of psionics; the determination that comes from knowing their cause is just; and the leadership of the galaxy’s first — and greatest — clairsentient.

That’s a pretty spiffy set-up, isn’t it? Millennium’s Edge is sadly incomplete, looking at the table of contents. The inventive GM will find useful information in a timeline running from 1925 to 2997, plot seeds, sketches of factions at work in the galaxy and the table of contents itself, which in outlining the authors’ plans for Millennium’s Edge can spark all sorts of ideas for advancing Trinity to the far future.

India Underground

India Underground cover

The cover of India Underground.

The Chitra Bhanu — dark psions, chibs — were those rare psions gifted with the most remarkable of abilities, the ability to control the very fabric of the universe. The quantum forces of gravity, electromagnetism and weak and strong nuclear forces were their playground. They seemed to be the most powerful, shining beacon for the defense of humanity against the Aberrants, and they made their home in a land that shared their glorious brightness–the Bharati Commonwealth. Until they themselves fell to the Aberrants’ dark pursuit…or did they?

That’s the pitch for India Underground, a fan-written supplement for the science fiction role-playing game Trinity. In the twenty-second century, humanity has overcome catastrophes to begin taking its first steps among the stars, as well as rebuilding at home and in orbit. A series of supplements for the game detailed the psi orders, organizations that imbue people with psychic abilities of various aptitudes, and the regions of the world in which they are based.

One pairing, India and the Chitra Bhanu order of quantakinetics, seemed like it would be left out. I don’t know if a Chitra Bhanu book was ever on the horizon for Trinity‘s developers, but fans Slagg and Geoff Bain were inspired to write their own. As is the way of the internet, the PDF has become rather scarce on the ground. RPGnet poster Skywalker pointed this out. And I figured, “Why not host it here?” So here it is, with the following disclaimers: Trinity and associated elements are the property of White Wolf/CCP. India Underground is a fan-written supplement which I did not write. My motivation is to make it easily available again, as up to now the file mostly lurked on dodgy file-hosting services. Since it was released for free in the first place, I hope it is cool with the authors to keep it available to the inquiring public.


The Gilchrist Trust in WitchCraft

Dennis Detwiller’s The Gilchrist Trust would make an interesting antagonist association for WitchCraft, to go beyond its immediate Call of Cthulhu applications. The goal of the Trust, proving the existence of life after death, would bring them directly into contact with the Twilight Order and the House of Thanatos.

Given their self-assigned mission of maintaining the boundaries between life and death, the Order is almost automatically predisposed to act as a foil to Trust investigators’ efforts. “Mundanes,” as most Trust agents would be, aren’t supposed to know about ghosts and the otherworlds. I can see Twilight members actively following Trust agents to muddy their investigations, stealing artifacts under study by the Trust and racing them to newly uncovered locations and materials to remove any traces of necromantic practices.

The Thanatoi’s position on the Gilchrist Trust would be murkier. The House of Thanatos is more about boundary crossers. Their membership is made up of revenants, phantasms, vampires and other sorts who either blur the line, or caper merrily on both sides. So they’ve got the information that can win someone the big prize of the Gilchrist Trust. Whether any Thanatoi would be on board with that information exploding out to the public seems fairly unlikely. The afterlife is their specialty. The thought of it being legitimized and rigorously examined by even a fraction of the scientific establishment of the 1920s should be terrifying.

Of course, this is the 1920s. The occult world of WitchCraft is still reeling from the mini-reckoning of the Great War and the Spanish flu. The Twilight Order and the House of Thanatos are not likely to be entirely on their game at the moment — though maybe the Thanatoi’s rolls have had an influx of revenants and relentless dead from the fields of France; perhaps even Gilchrist’s son, Alexander. Moreover, the prospect of a cool million, or a sizable share of the Gilchrist fortune by taking the big prize, would be awfully tempting to the Gifted necromancer down on his luck. With the self-appointed guardians and experts of the afterlife at an ebb, this could be just the right time for the Gilchrist Trust and its agents to crack the afterlife wide open.

The Pathfinder System Reference Document

With all the Pathfinder action I’ve been up to lately, I would be remiss in acknowledging what’s made it all possible. Sure, I’ve owned the core Pathfinder rulebook for a couple years now and that’s helpful at the table for referencing basic rules — did you know a rolling a 1 on a saving throw is an automatic failure? I didn’t — but between core, base and alternate classes and scads of archetype variants for each of those, the options for a game are dizzying and not easy to track.

Fortunately, Pathfinder being an open game and all, there is not one, but two online resources comprising all that open content: the reference document maintained by Paizo itself and Pathfinder SRD, an independent web site. These two sites have been tremendous help in building Alexandros Callimachi and Morley Bishop. I don’t really know what I’d be playing without having the opportunity to idly browse pages in my own time, rather than scanning someone else’s book at a character generation session.

At this point, with all the use I’ve gotten out of their open content, I really ought to flip Paizo some more business. The Advanced Player’s Guide? What supplement would you recommend for a Pathfinder player?

[Carrion Crown] The Seven Victims of Brother Swarm

Trial of the Beast coverThis week in Carrion Crown, a Dan (Sir Horace Gunderson), Geoff (Andris Kreitov), Toby (Solis Lightwarden and his eidolon Gea) and Tyler (Alexandros Callimachi) and GM Hunter picked up the action in the twilight of the swampy village of Hergstag.

Where there’s one wraithspawn, there’s likely to be more. The adventurers unanimously elect to fall back to the village. It’s too dark for running around in the swamp, courting the tetanus-laden embrace of further bear traps. Once in the boundaries of Hergstag, the chapel calls for attention. The small, white structure stands in the middle of the settlement. And the three sisters alleged one of the ghostly children was prone to hanging around the chapel grounds. Approaching the house of Desna, Solis discerns some sort of magical aura within. It’s bright and golden and of a variety unknown to the mage.

Meanwhile, Andris splits away from the main group to take a circuit of the chapel. Stalking through the headstones of the churchyard, he finds those of the murdered children. Only Elise and Karin’s show signs of interment. The other four stand as memorials to the lost. The broken strains of childish singing drift through the night air to Andris’ ear. He can’t place the language, but the tune itself is rather like a hymn.

“Mom wouldn’t allow it to be spoken in the house.”
— Andris never learned Varisian

The singing catches everyone else’s attention as well. They catch up with Andris to proceed together toward the source. In the cornfield beyond the graveyard, glimpses of a pale figure can be caught between derelict cornstalks. She idly sings a hymn to Desna as she runs, though her voice never wavers with the exertion. Solis casts light on Gea’s head and send her into the field to clear the way. As Gea approaches, the girl casts a glance in their direction. The empty black pits of her eyes betray nothing in the magical light.

Drifting through the cornstalks, the wraithspawn reaches out for Gea. Its dolorous touch misses the eidolon by mere inches as Gea happen to twitch just the right way. Perhaps the error throws the shade off-balance, as she flees into the depths of the cornfield — or, everyone silently considers, this is another baiting maneuver, like what caught poor Kreitov by surprise.

The sensible frame of mind taken earlier holds firm. The investigators fall back to the chapel. Trudging through the open grass, they can see the white streak of the wraithspawn cut ahead of them, angling to reach the chapel first. The casting of the timely gained haste by Solis puts them right on the spectral heels of the former little girl.[1]

Smashing down the front door, they burst into the chapel to find the sanctuary overgrown with plantlife. The overhead beams and pews sag from decay and humidity. Two figures dominate the scene. In mid-air hangs the wraith child, writhing and silently screaming in agony. Before her, on the floor, stands a man with white tattoos bright against his dark skin, clad in a blue surcoat. And he is very confused about what’s going on right now.

Andris and Callimachi leapt to the fore of peppering the undead spirit with magical fire. After a beat, the figure in blue joins in. In short order, the restless child of Hergstag dematerializes, hopefully never to be seen again.

“Can you heal us?”
“And he’s pretty!”
— Andris and Solis value different qualities in a cleric

The man in blue introduces himself as Aurosan, a cleric of Desna from Lepidstadt. With all the attention the ongoing trial has brought to the crimes of the Beast, the temple sent him to Hergstag to reconsecrate the village chapel. He was just completing the rite as the wraith child flew through the wall, neatly trapping her within the grace of the Great Dreamer.

Aurosan points out that the wraith that spawned these fiendish child shades likely still haunts nearby. Callimachi brings up that given wraithkind’s weakness in sunlight, its lair is probably underground. In this swampy area, there aren’t any cellars or subterranean structures. There is, the group realizes, the hill, the only raised mound of earth in this swampy expanse is just outside the village.

Scouting the road out of the village, Andris finds what first seems to be a fallen scarecrow. Closer inspection reveals a gruesome sight: a traveler who fell prey to another bear trap. Moreover, the remains are nearly mummified. That’s not the kind of decomposition action one finds in a swampy environment. It’s more like the victim of having one’s life force drained, which Aurosan confirms.

A shadowy figure awaits at the foot of the hill. From this distance, it looks like a scarecrow, much as the last did. To be safe, Andris puts an arrow through its head — which turns out to be rotten pumpkin. Aurosan takes advantage of the pause to provide spiritual support in the form of bless and aid.

“You guys all need to make Will saves to avoid being enamored by Aurosan.”
“I fail deliberately.”
— Hunter and Toby

Probing the scarecrow’s remains reveals a plank-covered opening down into the hillside. Below, in a small chamber, light from above picks out four crumpled forms on the earthen floor of the crevasse. Andris jumps down first to inspect the cave, but lands badly, having locked his knees instead of folding with the impact. As he staggers to his feet, he looks up. Silhouetted against the moon is a ragged mass of shadowy fluttering tendrils. Within the mass of darkness languidly blink six pairs of eyes. This must be the swarm referred to by the spirit moving the planchette. The wraith swoops down on Aurosan, which he handily dodges.

Solis enacts a new casting of haste — and spends the rest of the battle hucking acid bombs, having exhausted his complement of spells. The hail of arrows, bolts and positive energy bursts makes short work of Brother Swarm.[2] The black form lashes out at the adventurers, landing wounds, but it’s for nought. Andris in particular made an impressive showing with his archery skills. Perhaps the worse his legs are injured, the better marksman he becomes.

As the group catches its breath, the question is now what to do with what are indeed the remains of four young children, mummified in a similar fashion to the corpse on the village road. They were all victims of Brother Swarm. Interment seems the proper thing, but the prospect of utilizing speak with dead to compel testimony in the courtroom tomorrow comes to the fore. There’s concern about the sheer gall of such an action provoking the already agitated people of Lepidstadt to rioting fury, but the lure of truly exceptional testimony proves much too enticing.

“‘We don’t clean. We add new wings.'”
— Andris on the Lightwarden estate

Despite the darkness of the hour, they hie it back from Hergstag to Lepidstadt, the way illuminated by light spell upon light spell. The soft beds at the Lightwarden home are blessed comfort after a long day of tromping around the swamps of Ustalav. Solis in particular is concerned about Aurosan’s well-being — and ensuring he appears at the courthouse tomorrow, having offered to provide testimony about the distinctly non-golem-like nature of the ills plaguing Hergstag.

The next morning, Gunderson goes out extra early to procure the services of coffin maker. Four platinum pieces later,[3] everyone arrives on time and whole at the Lepidstadt courthouse for the second day of proceedings in the trial of the Beast. Aurosan is present, to Solis’ delight.[4] The gallery is once again packed with onlookers, many of them glaring down at the volunteer junior defense league squadron. The judges saw fit to bring forth the Beast itself today, secure in an immense iron cage.

After the prosecution’s witnesses give their account on what they saw in Hergstag, Sir Horace gets to work. Through cross-examination, he points out the holes in the story Heiger’s attempting to weave. The undisturbed nature of Karin’s home doesn’t mesh with the Beast’s immense size. No one saw the Beast do anything but carry Else’s body into the village. No one can definitively describe the Beast as laughing. In fact, at the sound of Else’s name, the Beast makes a shuddering, sobbing sound. At Gunderson’s prompt, the sisters admit it is very much like the sound they heard seven months ago.

“Do you swear to tell as much of the truth as someone paid you to tell?”
— Solis Lightwarden

Once through with the prosecution’s witnesses, Horace turns to his own. Andris provides his opinion as a man of the wild about the rundown nature of Hergstag, the untouched state of Karin’s home, and the presence of the wraith and its spawn. Aurosan’s testimony augments the defense’s case for wraiths. Prosecution objects to relevancy, but Horace promises all will become clear shortly, at which time he moves to the discovery of the children’s bodies in the hillside.

On the conclusion of cross-examination of Andris and Aurosan, Gunderson approaches the bench with prosecutor Heiger for a short sidebar. He outlines the plan for a court-appointed cleric to cast speak with dead on the children — after an appropriately sensitive viewing and grieving period for the bereaved — asking that the courtroom be cleared for a private session in deference to the families of the deceased. Heiger rather gleefully jumps in to point out that evidence rendered in a private session isn’t considered valid in Ustalavian law. Any channeling sessions must be performed in view of the public.

Horace hems and haws briefly, but decides the value of the testimony outweighs the danger of inciting a riot. Once a cleric of suitable prowess is secured and sworn in, it transpires that of the four sets of remains brought back from Hergstag, only one is a suitable candidate for the spell, that of Rachel. The others’ existence as wraithspawn was never terminated, so they are still undead. The child’s spirit, once brought forth, essentially confirms what the defense team suspected: she was lured up to the hill by her “friends,” really already wraithspawn themselves, fell down into the cave, where the wraith set upon her.

The courtroom erupts in furor at this revelation. The gallery is filled with shouting, catcalling citizens. Handy debris starts flying. Judge Kard bangs his gavel, shouting for order. Suddenly it seems as though the trial may not make it to the third day.

[1] During the alacritous walk, Toby let us in that she found out from Hunter that spirits contacted through the brass planchette can lie. “Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.”

[2] As Hunter let slip the creature was called.

[3] We are so beneficial to the Lepidstadt economy, what with 10 gold piece ladders and platinum piece coffins.

[4] Solis probably never let him out of bed.

[Skull & Shackles] We’re On a Boat?!

Skull & Shackles: The Wormwood Mutiny CoverTwo Fridays ago, as promised, I joined a new role-playing group to kick off the Skull & Shackles adventure path for Pathfinder.

Eric (Felix Cailean), Joey (Lady Viola Leona Eudonius), John (Jetsam ibn Abbasid ibn Yunus al-Bhar; Jetsam al-Bhar for short), Tyler (Morley Bishop), gathered by GM Luke, expected to end the night on board the Wormwood, but none of their characters did.

One night in Port Peril, of all the unlikely souls wandering those streets, four in particular find themselves inside or just adjacent to the Formidably Maid, a raucous dive of a tavern: one of Cayden Cailean’s foundlings, Felix, on the trail of the dread pirate Jarreth Kay; scion of a noble house, Viola, abandoned by her erstwhile entourage; the unregarded second son of a merchant, Jetsam, now a practical, hard-nosed professional sailor; and dealer in illicit items, Morley Bishop, languishing in the stocks just outside the tavern.[1]

“Leak proof! Rat free!
Wormwood is a floating Hilton

Into the tavern strides a figure magnificent in his long red coat. Bandoliers brimming with daggers cross his chest. He addresses the whole tavern, extolling the virtues of the Wormwood, apparently the fastest, cleanest, most rugged ship in all the Shackles, with the most stalwart crew to be found on the sea. All it needs before shipping out is a few more sturdy hands to round out the crew complement. Despite the earnestness of his pitch, no one in the Maid bites. The man in red tosses a purse to the barkeep with the instruction to keep the drink flowing tonight. Though not interested in the pitch, the tavern denizens are more than happy to accept free drink. They get to business.

Out in the street, the man in red pauses by the stocks. One fruit-smeared penitent is on display, answering to the name of Bishop. Wrongfully imprisoned for time untold, the prospect of signing on to a ship leaving with the morning tide grabs Bishop’s attention immediately. He can’t grab for the quill to make his mark fast enough — possibly because of the aforementioned stocks. After a brief word with a nearby constable, the man in red secures Bishop’s release into his custody and shuttles him straight to the Wormwood and into the custody of his new shipmates, who are rather taken aback by the sight of someone walking up the gangplank fully conscious.

“You obviously don’t know who you’re talking to.”
“I don’t think she does, either.”
— Viola and Bishop

Meanwhile, everyone back at the Formidably Maid makes merry. One by one, the drink has its way and puts each of them down into deep, dreamless sleep. The next thing to penetrate anyone’s fuzzy mind is the gentle rocking motion, almost as though they were cradled in their mother’s arms. It’s the creak of timber and whipping of the wind that gives it all away, though. The unlucky folk have been pressganged — or wandered aboard of their own accord, if sufficiently foolish.

While the unwilling recover, Bishop is approached by another pressganged crew member, Sandra Quinn. As a follower of Besmara, she’s no stranger to the rough side of the seafaring life. She mentions he should see the quartermaster, Cutthroat Grok, about recovering any personal belongings he might have had before coming on board Wormwood.

“‘E talks like a poof.”
“Maybe that’s not all I do.”
— Master Scourge and Felix Cailean

The bosun, Master Scourge, arrives to lay out the facts. Lady Viola, the refined woman of high society, stands up to him. She shrilly demands to see the captain, being well above the ignominy of kidnapping and forced labor. The Eudonia family simply will not stand for this kind of uncouth behavior. When Scourge strikes Viola to the deck, it’s Felix who leaps to her rescue. Scourge’s band of brutes bring the chivalrous follower of Cayden Cailean to his knees none too kindly.

Eventually, everyone is brought up on deck for inspection by Mr Plugg, a bald man carrying a set of cat o’ nine tails which he wields with unnerving intimacy. On the poop deck is the grim figure of Captain Harringan, master of the Wormwood. He stays aloof from the proceedings below as Mr Plugg puts the new crew in their places. Viola’s protests are quickly muffled. Both she and Felix are lashed for their insolence — and a convenient lesson to the new crew about the severity of the discipline Mr Plugg enforces.

“Swabbing the deck means cleaning?!”
— Viola

Display of force made, Plugg doles out duties to the crew. Bishop is sent down to the galley as mate to the cook, Ambrose “Fishguts” Croup. Fishguts is mostly interested in drinking and “seasoning” the crew’s meals with various bodily fluids. Despite being an archaeologist and not a swineherd, Bishop manages to slaughter a pig for the evening meal without too much difficulty.

A sailor by trade and remaining fairly equanimous to the situation, Jetsam is sent to work up in the rigging, where he connects with Tulach Shortstone, a gnomish sailor. His first day of mostly uneventful, though dropping block and tackle to the deck mars his quiet, efficient labor.

“It’s like needlepoint! They ever train you in that?”
— Felix to Viola

When Viola and Felix recover from their lashings, the highborn lady is sent to sew sails and swab the deck. Almost supernaturally, when Viola accidentally sews two sails together, Mr Plugg is there with his “discipline.” Eudonia rails against the “vile, horrid man,” but he is unswayed, clearly relishing every opportunity to beat obedience into his thralls. Felix bravely steps in again, offering to take Lady Viola’s lashings on himself. Scourge ups the stakes, hanging Felix from the yardarm, dropping him hard to the deck.

“I was right. He does like the deck.”
“I’m rigging. Swabbies are mostly tied to the mast.”
— Jetsam observes the plight of Felix and Viola

Later, as night falls, Scourge makes an example out of crew man Jakes, who was caught stealing. Lashed at and suspended from his wrists and ankles, Jakes is pushed over the prow of the ship. The ropes run along the sides of Wormwood. Eventually, at the aft end, Jakes is dragged up, bruised and splintered from his ordeal along the keel of the ship. Just as Jakes begins to recover, Scourge abruptly pushes him over the railing again. Blood in the water brings sharks in short order and that is the end of Jakes. Eyes glinting with far too much pleasure at such discipline, Scourge reminds everyone that to steal on board the Wormwood is to steal from everyone.

Quinn emerges from the crowd again, gathering the new recruits around her. With a prayer to Besmara, she heals Felix’s crushed throat. His first words are to promise repayment once he is master of Wormwood. This brings up the whole topic of overthrowing the current regime aboard the ship. The new kids have to stick together to survive on a ship like Wormwood.

“Wise man grabs tail of snake again and again.”
“It’s gotta get tired eventually.”
— Jetsam and Felix

During the evening hours, Felix and Viola approach the quartermaster about their belongings. Viola wants her parasol and shoes back, while Felix is concerned about the disposition of the cask of Caiden Cailean’s sacramental ale. It turns out to have found its way into the mugs of Scourge and Cutthroat Grok, which is sort of where Felix wanted it to land. Felix changes tactics, angling for his holy tankard.[2] Companionship is off the table for Felix, but he entices Cutthroat with the prospect of brewing mead in the galley — plus his remaining grog ration.

While Quinn and Bishop engage in some friendly yet crooked dicing, Viola continues her networking with the female portion of the crew. Rosie the halfling offers some advice about sleeping arrangements. Finally the night activities draw to a close and the crew retreat to their hammocks.

The next morning, day two of the new recruits’ maritime adventure, they find their way abovedecks blocked by a gang of surly sailors. Jetsam doesn’t take any guff, first staring them down, then being the first to draw blood with his stashed rigging knife. Al-Bhar coolly continues on his way above. No one steps up to stop him.

Now Felix on the other hand, Felix locks horns with another of the ruffians and neither is willing to back down. Bishop tries to defuse the situation, but no one’s listening. Felix goes so far as to offer the sailor a free punch right on the chin. Viola swings a length of block and tackle to keep the others at bay.

Abruptly the gang withdraws, dashing up to the main deck. The ship’s bell rings. They successfully delayed the recruits in reporting for duty. Scourge is rather delighted at the prospect of doling out discipline. Bishop and Eudonia take lashes for their tardiness. When Felix tries to take all the blame on himself, Scourge decides to break out a new technique: the mallet. Mashed against the railing, Felix’s hand begins to swell and turn black almost immediately. To cement the lesson, Scourge consigns the Caileanite to the sweat box for the remainder of the day.

For the others, the day passes somewhat more uneventfully. Bishop builds a rapport with Croup, learning more about the ship’s crew. Croup confides that he gambled away his life to the captain — and that he breeds chickens. Everyone needs a hobby, right? The chickens and “seasoning” the ship’s food[3] occupy Croup’s time. Viola begins to find her place among the swabbies, building relationships rather than focusing on her tasks. Jetsam has more of a mixed response in the rigging; there are friends and foes alike up in the air.

At the end of the day, Felix is dragged from the sweat box. His mangled hand is black, puffy from swelling and oozing liquids better kept on the inside. Sandra Quinn emerges from the crowd and lays her hand over Felix’s, healing the injury — and making him ready for the day’s work to come.

This night, it’s Jetsam who approaches Grok the quartermaster, seeking only his scimitar. After some rifling through the stores, the drink-befuddled half-orc finds the one in question after a few false tries that don’t come close to al-Bhar’s treasured blade. The after hours activities go on until the grog rations run out, then most people retreat below to sleep or await their turn on the night’s watch.

[1] I blinked a bit when my idea of a black market antiquities deal gone wrong translated to my character starting off in the stocks, which effectively took him out of initial interaction with the other player characters. But in the end, it paid off, partly for the fun of the scene of him worming his way out, but also the distinction of being the only volunteer.

[2] The more I learn about the worship of Cayden Cailean, the more intrigued I am. And by “intrigued,” I mean “thirsty.”

[3] Playing along with Croup, Morley contributed a snot rocket or two the day’s meal. And in miming, I managed to launch a real one to everyone’s amusement. Ah, verisimilitude.