On 11 September, we played our first session using the Stage’s new Core Rulebook. These are exciting times for me, as the Stage is slowly becoming what I set out to create.

We also used new setting material: this game takes place in the Deniza, which is another ‘theater’ for the Verden setting that our previous campaign took place in. Except for one man, our entire group was there in person, as our migratory patterns have finally brought nearly all of us back to the same place. This means less bumbling about with Skype and Roll20, which to me is great.

Someone also brought their dog, which is also great--up until the part where it got sick and the whole place stank of dog vomit. But after that it lay sweetly at our feet and blessed us with the occasional dog fart. What a life!

Some basics on the setting and the adventure

This game takes place in the Deniza, a theater of Verden. The Deniza is an area to the north of Adelfán (where the previous campaign took place), and is loosely based on the Black Sea region. In technological terms the Deniza is comparable with the Late Middle Ages (with a few exceptions). I’ve copied in a map of the Deniza below.

Players get to pick from three races in the Deniza: coarnu, humans, and qarim. Humans we’re all familiar with by now, I hope; coarnu are quick and athletic antelope-like giants (cousins of Adelfán’s Gettefolk); and qarim are small, cat-like beings, excellent climbers unimpaired by hot weather and capable of seeing in the dark.

The story begins in a caravanserai on the road from the Ahakdir to Irseme. The players were slaves, but their master’s caravan was ambushed. The players were forced to defend themselves against the raiders and--as a reward for their fighting--their master, Babür Üldoruk, gave them basic supplies and set them free. Below is the introductory text the players received before we began.

Introduction

Your eyes meet the wide, slit-like pupils of Babür Üldoruk, and then those of the slaves gathered around you. Your chest still heaves; your breath still rasps in your throat. The air is pregnant with the scent of blood.

“Who were these men?” Babür gestures at the corpses that litter the ground, his voice a mixture between a purr and a hiss.

None answer.

Babür’s large ears twitch. He twirls his whiskers around his fat, furry fingers. His two guards seem unsure of what to do next. One wedges a new chamber into his breech-loading rifle, while the other wipes his scimitar clean on the turban of one of the raiders. But both keep their eyes on Bürban.

You know you could overpower them now. But not without loss of life. Quick glances at the others reveal they must think the same thing. The threat of violence still lingers, and grows thicker in the night air.

“Well,” Babür finally says, “this will not do.”

One of the motley crew raises an eyebrow. A hand tightens its grip on one of the captured falchions.

“What do you mean?” A voice asks.

Babür sighs and scratches his fang with a well-manicured claw. “I cannot sell men who saved my hide: it will not do. Honor commands that I am indebted to you, and I must repay you.”

You wonder who would have fought if the raiders had gone straight for Babür and his guards.

Babür makes a dismissive gesture. “You are free. I release you from your bonds.” The disappointment weighs heavily on his voice.

You stare down at your hands, free hands.

Babür snaps his fingers at one of the guards. “They get food, for five days each, and a free pick from the weapons and armor.” He looks at you and the motley crew one by one. “That should get you to Sehir-Ül-Bayyad, the nearest city. From there, you can catch a ship anywhere. I will pay for your stay at the caravanserai tonight; tomorrow, you leave.”

His paws crunch in the sand as he turns. The two guards shrug at each other and beckon you and the rest of the freed slaves to follow them to the camels, so you can have your pick of the supplies…

The characters

There are five players in our group (not counting myself), and this is what they came up with:

Erdan is a warrior of the regelui, a race of humans who live in the disorganized southern kingdoms. He was a warrior, specialized in fighting with spear and armor, and was captured and enslaved by the qarim slavers after a battle turned sour.

Zikan is a qarim, one of the civilized halksahilim who live in the cities of the norther sultanates. He was trained as a janissary, an elite soldier skilled in the use of firearms. He served in the army and later as a mercenary until he, too, was captured and sold into slavery.

Astir is a coarnu of the nomadic tribes of the väli, who live in the Empire of Oest as faithful subjects to the Queen Sorceress. He, however, was raised a slave to qarim masters and has known no other life. He is strong and an excellent fist fighter.

Cipran is a regelui like Erdan. He served as a caravan guard for the slave caravans in the north. Wounded, he was nurtured back to health by escaped slaves. However, when the slaves were recaptured by manhunters, the manhunters thought Cipran one of their number and captured and sold him as well.

Rajat is an akrepim, a qarim who descends from slaves that served the magical etter (who have since declined) and has great magical talent. Born and raised a slave, he has talent for staying in the shadows and a limited grasp of Apportation magic, which he uses to further his illicit activities.

Let’s get into the game!

Day 1

When the dust of the ambush has settled, the ground is littered with corpses. The caravanserai’s guards rush in, too late to help, and Babür Üldoruk sends the players off with his guardsmen to take free pick from the supplies. The guardsmen lead the players to the camels and look on with a scowl as the players take their pick. Astir takes an executioner’s falchion and a large shield (even though he fights unarmed; he needs something to sell); Cipran takes a large, straight-edged sword of southern design, a coat of mail, and a small pistol of qarim make; Rajat takes a few throwing knives; Erdan takes a broad-bladed boar spear and a set of heavy laminar armor; Zikan takes a carbine not unlike the ones the janissaries use and some ammunition.

When the players are done, the caravan guards toss them supplies that should last them five days, enough to get them to Sehir-Ül-Bayyad, the capital of the Bayyad Sultanate. From there they can get a ship anywhere, or find work if they are so inclined. Of course, they first have to spend the night at the caravanserai.

Rajat--a born thief--is quick to steal the gold-inlaid dagger of a merchant in the caravanserai’s courtyard. Once he has safely secured the coveted item, he hops across the courtyard and tries to sell it to another merchant. He performs a little telekinetic trick with the dagger to try to capture the man’s attention, which unfortunately also draws the attention of the original owner. Rajat flees away into the crowd of merchants and travelers and decides to lie low for a while.

Meanwhile, the other players try to secure a job. If they are going to Sehir-Ül-Bayyad, they might as well escort a caravan and get paid for it. They have little success and meet with suspicion or merchants trying to turn their game on them (“why don’t you pay me for the privilege to travel with my caravan; that’s a lot safer for you”). They do not manage to find a job and in the end rest in the room Babür Üldoruk paid for them (except Rajat, who sleeps on the roof because he’s not used to sleeping indoors).

Day 2

The party sets out and follows the road west along the coast to Sehir-Ül-Bayyad. They spend the hottest part of the day sleeping, and Zikan finds them some fruit to eat. They settle for the night in a caravanserai.

Day 3

The players proceed much the same way. However, during this afternoon’s rest, Zikan spots a crumbling structure in the copse they turned to for shadow. They investigate and find a collapsed shack. Astir makes quick work of the debris and uncovers a hatch that leads to an underground storage room. Rajat and Zikan (both are qarim and can see in the dark) go down. They dispatch of a Sulikh, a poisonous insect that camouflages as a rock, and find a small cache of spices, opiates, coins, and sap of the Derhuz tree (which restores Stamina).

Happy that they now have at least a few coins, the players continue on their merry way. They decide to travel a bit longer by night, which is cooler and more pleasant (and the star- and moonlight is enough to see by). They rest at a caravanserai long after the sun has set.

Day 4

The players set out again in the late morning. The roads are now empty, since most caravans left early, so they make good time. When they rest for the afternoon between the trees of a small copse, they are joined by a cloth merchant and his guard. The trader has a chat with Astir about the fabric business, and Rajat attempts to sell him the dagger he stole earlier, but the merchant is not willing to offer much.

Erdan and Cipran in the meanwhile agree that they should kill the merchant and his guard and take his camels and supplies to aid them on their trek to Sehir-Ül-Bayyad. Cipran then kills the merchant’s guard with a few savage strokes of his two-handed sword and quickly turns on the merchant. Astir tries to step in to stop Cipran, but--with Astir’s back turned to him--Erdan quickly skewers the merchant with his boar spear, who dies choking on his own blood.

This campaign log and the box below have prompted Cipran's player to write a narrative of the events as they transpired from Cipran's point of view, which is always good: read it here!

Discussion time

These actions caused dissent among the ranks: people had opinions, there were role-playing issues, and discussions ensued, which means immersion died a death that was messier than the dog vomit we enjoyed moments before.

It’s always a bit tricky to deal with stuff like this as a GM. I can make the story bend any way, so if people want to be murderhoboes or whatever, that’s not the issue. However, there needs to be consensus among the players about this first, and that was lacking.

So I tried to sit back as much as I could and let the players discuss what the hell they want to do now. I think we spent an hour, maybe more, on this. Finally, the players agreed that the non-murderhobo characters (Rajat and Astir) would leave the party in anger, report the crime, and their players would make new characters with a more ‘neutral’ outlook.

Astir and Rajat leave the party. The others take the merchant’s two camels and his coin. They hide the corpses as good as they can and chuck the bolts of cloth in the foliage, afraid it will raise too many questions. They then continue towards Sehir-Ül-Bayyad.

Day 5 & Day 6

The journey takes the players to the city of Sehir-Ül-Bayyad. In this city, the sultan Ender III rules. Sehir-Ül-Bayyad is nicely located with easy access by sea to most of the nations that hug the shores of Deniz, the great sea at the heart of the Deniza. It’s a city of pirates and slavers, and it shows: aside from the main, well-lit avenues, Sehir-Ül-Bayyad is full of dark alleyways, rickety houses, and questionable guesthouses where evil-looking qarim linger. The players make their way towards the harbor district and find a well-to-do guesthouse in the part of town where the merchants live (and the guards are not afraid to come) and spend the night there.

Day 7

Erdan, Zikan, and Cipran set out to sell their (mostly ill-gained) goods. They get a fair price for the camels, the spice, and the opiates, and then make their way towards the hustle and bustle of the harbor district to see if they can find passage south. They want to leave the northern sultanates as quickly as possible, and Zikan (despite being a qarim of these parts) is inclined to join them, if only to be in a place where slavery is outlawed.

They meet several individuals, all of regelui descent, on a great square where a lot of wheeling and dealing seems to be going on. A charming and handsome man by the name of Dragomir leads them to an elder shipowner named Vladu who offers passage to the southern kingdoms. The players decide they want to go to the city of Zece-Biserici in the kingdom of Biser, and see the ten temples for which it is famous. They strike a deal with Vladu, and they can set sail the day after tomorrow.

Day 8

The players spend the afternoon to visit the temples in Sehir-Ül-Bayyad’s foreign quarter. There are two churches to Damas there: one of the docheri and one of the regelui and the amurgi. The docheri are the people of Oest (known in the south as the Oestefolk) who build black-and-white churches of imposing size, decorated with optical illusions, and hold services where the people mourn the passing of the Dead God (and sprinkle water in their eyes if tears do not come naturally). The church of the regelui and the amurgi is simpler. They believe that the Dead God rose again in undeath and worship, admire, and fear him in long prayers led by gloomy priests in black robes.

They spend their last night in Sehir-Ül-Bayyad quietly, go to bed early, and prepare for the passage south, to Zece-Biserice, which should take them about a month.

Day 9-30

Erdan, Zikan, and Cipran are collected early by the sailors of the Golden Maiden, the ship that will take them south, and meet its chatty captain Jannovic, who is eager to share his knowledge of Zece-Biserici. They also meet the other travelers who have booked passage with them, the new characters to fill the void left by the earlier schism.

Flynne is an etterkin, a human who descends from the slaves of the etter and has been blessed (or cursed, depending on perspective) with some of their magical talent. He is frail and clad in a robe of the priests of Damas. He explains that he was in the northern sultanates for his studies and now eagerly returns to his homeland.

Razvan is an amurgi, one of the black-furred coarnu of the south who share kingdoms and habitats with the regelui. He is a Warden of the Sepulcher, a member of a sacred order that protects a site they believe to be the grave of Damas, the Dead God. He is on his trials for the order and must roam for some time in the world before he may return.

The players spend their days aboard the Golden Maiden getting better acquainted. Every night, the men gather on the deck to play dice and talk. Jannovic plays a big role in these gatherings, it seems, and he likes to talk, a lot. He shares many tales, including those of the Dragon Islands, which lie along this route, where dragons are known to swoop down in the dark and capture unwitting sailors--why, his brother-in-law once sailed on a ship from which at some point a sailor had been abducted!

As they sail south, the nights and the days grow somewhat colder. Zikan, being a qarim and an excellent climber, spends his nights in the crow’s nest, preferring it to the cramped cabin which doesn’t have enough bunks for all of them.

Day 31

In the night, the players are roused by the sounds of battle. Zikan, who sleeps in the crow’s nest, sees qarim raiders board the ship from small sloops to attack the sailors. The players quickly come to the deck to aid in repelling the qarim--who are obviously slavers--and a big battle ensues. In the heat of battle, Flynne is struck by a bolt of lightning from a qarim mage and dies.

Battle Details

The first real battle using the new rules of the Stage! Pretty exciting!

The players were pitted against about 14 raiders, two of them mages with a focus on Projection magic (which features offensive elemental spells and defensive wards). As allies the players had the sailors of the Golden Maiden, who were pretty lousy, but could at least keep a few raiders at bay so that the players wouldn’t be instantly overwhelmed.

The raiders each had 500 Character Points, the exact same as the players got to distribute on character creation. They had no skill levels above 1 in combat skills however (except the mages had Projection skill level 2) so they shouldn’t pose too much of a threat.

We tested some new concepts, including reach weapons (which are not part of the core material), and we used the new Agility rules that allow a character to move when he dodges an attack, thus disengaging from his attacker and denying him another attack. I was very happy with this mechanic: the battlefield becomes more dynamic since people reposition more frequently.

I was also happy with the use of magic. I had outfitted the qarim mages with some nice defensive spells that worked out pretty well for them; of course, they bit the dust in the end but players found the mages protected by strong wards and perhaps not as squishy as they had hoped…

Unfortunately, Flynne was squishy. Flynne’s player had invested his Character Points in Mind and Soul skills only; as a result, Flynne had 1 Stamina and 1 Vitality. When he received 4 Body damage from a lightning spell, he was instantly dead. That is the risk of the Stage’s Body, Mind, and Soul system and the accompanying ‘hitpoints’ for every such statistic. Specialization in one area means vulnerability in another, and low-level characters can go down fairly quickly if they start specialization early on. There are some tips in the new Core Rulebook (on page 11) to make the Stage less unforgiving for those who need it to be, but this is a conscious design choice.

Altogether, I think the battle went smoothly. I still find the way the Stage handles self-targeting spells a bit awkward (you need to ‘hit’ yourself with a spell, which doesn’t really sound or feel right), and I still see some room for improvement in minor details, but overall the Stage is really coming together. It’s a shame about Flynne’s death, especially because his player was also Rajat’s player (who left after the schism) and thus lost two characters in a single session.

When the enemies are dispatched, most of the sailors are dead, and the ship is on fire due to the qarim mages’ excessive use of fireballs. The players accompany captain Jannovic to a lifeboat, lower it, and leave the ship and whatever they had on it to burn down and sink.

They make out three islands in the moon- and starlight (one of which is undoubtedly the place that harbors the ship of the qarim slavers they just fought), and they make their way to the closest one together with captain Jannovic and the three surviving sailors. The group lands on the beach and pulls their lifeboat into the foliage for concealment. They sleep on the leaves or in the dirt, exhausted from battle.

Day 32

Morning finds the players on the small, mountainous island. There are some ruins atop a ridge, about an hour’s march away, and to the south of the island--about three hours away--Zikan sees some washed-up debris. Hopefully, it’s food, because supplies will be a problem: a sailor managed to bring a bag of victuals, but that is all they have; it will last them no more than a day. Zikan forages for more food, but finds very little to complement their meager supply.

Meanwhile, Jannovic seems nervous and is muttering. When pressed, he reveals that he believes these islands to be the Dragon Islands of legend…

All in all, a nice session. The players were awarded 80 Character Points, bringing them to 580 (except for newcomer Bogdan, to be introduced in the next session, who starts at 560 Character Points).

Lessons learned!

So far, I’m pretty happy with the new rules, but there are a few things:

  • Spells that target ‘self’ (like the Ward spell on page 197 of the Core Rulebook) need some work. It feels really counterintuitive to have to roll the dice to see if you can hit yourself. I will think some more about this;
  • The rules for reach weapons are pretty nice, but quite confusing: a character who uses a weapon with reach can attack as a Reaction instead of dodge or parry an enemy’s attack. This leaves some questions as to how the original attacker can respond and if that isn’t too complicated. I need to see some more of it in action, but it will probably be tweaked at some point;
  • We mustn’t forget the new Hit Difficulty rules: characters always get a bonus to their Hit Difficulty depending on their size category, regardless of whether they respond to an attack (see page 24 of the Core Rulebook)! This takes some getting used to as it is different from the old system, where there was no such bonus. And I forgot to explicitly mention it, which is my bad.

Read about session 2 here!