RPG Session – Solomon Kane – The Maltravers Legacy

This is a write up after three RPG session conducted by Google+Hangouts and Roll20. It is loosely based on a commercial scenario for the Pathfinder Game, The Skinsaw Murders, which is the second chapter in the Rise of the Runelords. If playng in that campaign then do not read the write-up below


Robert Poldark

Robert Poldark. Both the players who played him looked almost exactly like this

Jayne – Wise woman and to her surprise, healer
Xavier More – student of mysteries
Lord Amery Flashheart – Down at heels swordsman
Lancashire Jack – Soldier looking for a cause
Robert Poldark – reformed pirate, half naked grass cutting a speciality
Mitchell – because he’s worth it. Dog.

Mitchell

Mitchell, the wonder dog, saviour of the Party

Having left Uffington, they are heading to Dover to take ship for the continent, the group stop off in the village of Wantage. There they learn that there is a start of a hue and cry for the deposed Squire of Uffington, that the cousin if organising a search to apprehend malcontents who raised up the innocent people of Uffington against their rightful Lord.

Also there are stories from France of religious strife and that English ships are being turned back from French ports.

That night, in the Inn, each gets a dream. The voice that drew them all on the quest warns them that the way south is being watched. The ship they are to get will meet them in Maldon on the East coast.

Jayne gets a longer dream with a warning (OOC – The character picked for this was randomly determined. It could have been Mitchell, Xavier, Flashheart or Lancashire Jack. Lucky Jayne)

“You have an admirer, I cannot tell from where the thought comes, but it comes strong, It thinks of you, and it is not a pleasant
thought:

“You will learn to love me, desire me in time as she did. Give yourself to me and live forever.”?

With this disturbing news the group turn east towards the town of Abingdon. They notice that the farmers are wary, They follow at a distance and are obviously armed. You stop one group to ask what is going on and learn that there have been disappearances and some deaths . The attacks come at night and the wounds look horrifically like they had been caused by human teeth.

With that awful news you continue to Abingdon and find the normally welcoming town is shuttered up and the doors locked. The only Inn that is open for business is

“The Cleft Skull”, whose seven foot tall owner, hideously scarred, with a rasping voice welcomes you.

The Inn, despite its name and Matt’s failure to pick up on the reference, is wall appointed, the food is wholesome and the bedroom clean.

Fed and watered and settling down for the night, you are interrupted by the town’s Bailiff.

He enquires about any strange sights you may have seen on your travels. When asked why, he says that people aren’t travelling much at the moment, and that recently he caught a madman near some lightly chewed corpses marked with a curious symbol. So, like, weird stuff is going on

“We were assaulted by a deranged man near an ruined house east of the town along the Small Road. The man was obviously sick and insane, his flesh fevered, eyes wild, mouth frothing, and clothes caked with blood. We subdued him, but when they checked inside the house they discovered the mutilated bodies of three men.

“I might not have known them if I had not recently thrown them out of town myself. They were peddlars and thieves. Vagabonds and Mountebanks without a scruple of decency between them.

“I was not surprised to find them dead, but I had thought a knifing in an inn and thrown into a ditch more likely. Not this. They were torn and maybe eaten. Just like the others.

“All marked too. A Strange mark carved into them. A weird kind of deformed star. All three with the same, but carved, not inked. I have them in a cellar if you want to see them, but they were far from handsome men in life, and much worse in death. Plan to bury them tomorrow. Far away”

The symbol is unknown to Xavier or Jayne, though Mitchell knows all about it, as usual. However Xavier, no stranger to Oxfordshire, knows of an antiquarian weirdo near by who might recognise it.

The next morning you find Redvers Brush, who identifies it as a symbol of ancient Babylonian origin, “as recently imparted in the scholarly work Grimorium Verum. It is linked to Lucifer there”, “I have seen works calling it the “Seal of Heylel”, and claiming it heralds a new dawn, both in the literal sense and a metaphysical sense.”

He takes you to a squat round tower surrounded by houses in a grubby, squalid courtyard. The tower is slick and doorless, no break in it at all, not even for stonework, though a kind of relief surrounds it. Among the weird shapes is the symbol you have found.

Despite all efforts, including Jayne taking on the form of a bird to try from above, you cannot get in.

An urchin brings word from the Bailiff. The lunatic is lucid, he asks you to come and bring word of this symbol. Xavier and Lancashire Jack remain (I will have a think to see if there is anything else useful that they might have discovered and email you) as Jayne, Mitchell and Flashheart follow the Urchin to Christ’s hospital, a large, monastic looking building with rooms for each patent.

The bailiff meets you with the doctor and a couple of attendants, and a darker skinned man, Gergi Nicolu, who seems flushed and has a bandaged shoulder. Mitchel refuses to go near him.

Gergi is introduced to you as a local labourer of reasonable character though not beyond doing a bit of muscle work for minor criminals. Gergi looks up as you enter, staring at each before raving

“More meat for the Dead Man eh? Beware what you seek to profit by, money or pleasures, the price is never worth it.

“What? Yes. Just a job. Not bad enough. That’ll show them, bot bad enough. They got a message. Who knew they could read. Come to the old house. You will earn silver and maybe a piece or two of gold each if you come. They thought to go, and said that if their benefactor would pay silver and maybe gold for their time then they could take
him and maybe find some more silver and gold where that came from.

“Yes, yes, why do even a dishonest day’s work they said, when a little thought can get the usurer. The usurer they thought, but no, they got the dead man. He surprised us all, we were overcome, and the ropes, like a chicken for the roast I was tied up, then he brought them to the middle of the floor from where he had flung them. They were not breathing well, but they were still alive.

“Then the hands ripped, their flesh, the stench, the sound. No more, no more. The Dead Man grumbled joy. ‘My desires’ It said ‘My desires, She will be mine and all will be made well, the sinful die and I will live’.

Gergi stares at Jayne and becomes excited and agitated.
“It is her, my new Master’s one. M’Lord Maltravers will be pleased. He will love you. He will love you more than me!

Hmm, more than me. NOOOOO!”

The gypsy flushes more, looking inhuman, launching himself at Jayne, she scuttles back out of the road, Flashheart knocks him back and the attendants manage to get a hold of him.
As Lancashire Jack and Flashheart appear here, finished with the tower, Gergi is knocked out, allowing Xavier and Jayne to examine him. In addition to his weird fever, his would is putrifying as if he were already dead, yet he seems as alive as any.
The Bailiff is stunned with surprise

END OF SESSION ONE


We rejoin the group at Christ’s Hospital in Abingdon Jayne having endured the attack of a raving madman, whose body has a wound that seems to be rotting, not festering, but rotting, yet is marvellously intact.

In the ravings the madman mentioned the name of “M’Lord Maltravers”. They could have asked the Bailiff, but they did not want to avoid the authorities in case they ended up in trouble like their actions a few days ago removing the Squire of Uffington leading to a price on their heads.

Jayne made enquiries of one of the attendants and found that the Maltravers had a house south and eat of Abingdon, a strange place surrounded by woods, which was a place of ill-omen. There were vague, dark stories but the only concrete story she got given was one about one of the Maltravers Lords going mad, murdering the household and killing himself. The Maltravers’s home, Ffion Manor, was abandoned for years before a relative came to take it over a few years ago, though it has been a while since anyone saw him in town.
With no further ado, possibly due to the shortage of time for the players, they headed through the locked up town, through the farmlands, past the suspicious farmers and to the woods.

Since everyone in Lancashire is a poacher (apparently) Lancashire Jack was sent to scout out the manor, with Mitchell for company. The others scouted around the wood.
Reluctant to go through though they were Jayne decided to explore, taking the form of a badger. She descended down and snuffled through a hole that lead straight on, as close as she could tell straight towards the manor. There were branching tunnels but she ignored them. After about 300 yards she came to an open space, with a few more branching tunnels, and reckoned that the ceiling was about 40 or 50 feet below the surface, given to slop to get here.

She continued on towards the exit in the same direction, which appeared to be heading up, when she heard a noise and a manlike thing launched out of the hole and battered her backwards.

In badger form she headed back the way she came, with all speed, launching out of the hole where Xavier, Flashheart and Robert were waiting, thus warned Robert slammed his falchion on the thing as it appeared, that seemed to break its back but it still crawled forward, moving, Xavier hit it his sword, lopping a bit off. Then, from further away, in bounded Flashheart, his blessed rapier shining with God’s holy love as he put the coup de grace to the thing.

Jayne returned shaken, but managed to pull herself together long enough to remember herhealing arts and examine the man like beast. It seemed like a rotting corpse, but the flesh was holding together well, much better than it should have, and the fingernails and teeth were elongated and there was something undefinably odd about the eyes, like they were bulging out.

Meanwhile Lancashire Jack had a longer journey to pick up the path as he wanted to scout out that route. He saw an overgrown way, the only reason it was distinguishable was because the woods were more thick with undergrowth and the overarching trees prevented the plants growing too high. Eventually he came to fields of the small plots and gardens that served the manor. They too were over grown and the nearest outbuildings fired.

The house itself was obviously in disrepair and, in places sagging, but was otherwise still intact. Mitchell, brave though he is, was reluctant to go closer until reassured by Lancashire Jack, and the thought occurred to Mitchell that, as he could outrun Jack, he’d have a chance to get away as whatever was inside ripped Jack apart. That cheered him somewhat.

Jack was cautious, and circled the house looking for signs of movement, but saw none. He looked around and about but could find no tracks save for some old wheel tracks fading into the soil.

Gingerly Jack prodded the door open, to find an empty hall, little decoration apart from a few portraits, of different people, not the same person repeated, and one of the wall tapestries covering the floor for some reason. Mould and decay was rife, and he was sure that somewhere he could hear sobbing, as of a child or a woman.
At that point the others, fresh from their rather one sided fight with the thing, arrived.

END OF SESSION TWO


The group arrived to the rotting manor in the woods, first Lancashire Jack with Mitchell, then the others following up. They found themselves in the entrance hall, lined with family portraits, badly stuffed animals and mismatched suits of armour.

As soon as they entered in to the building they heard sobbing coming from further in, a child’s sobbing, a small girl by the sound of things It seemed to be coming from under the building.

Xavier noticed a pattern of fungus and rot on a tapestry on the floor, it seemed to be acting as a conduit for a malign will, which he resisted, perhaps divining more of its nature than it did of his,

There was a whole house to search, but the group were rightly concerned with the child. Two doors seemed to promise a way downstairs. One lead to the head of some stairs, though they found this out by smashing the door down the stairs, the other lead to a cloakroom, and, upon one cloak spike,a corpse. They removed the body from the heard, just to be on the safe side, and converted one of its leg bones to a torch by the use of one of Jayne’s spells.

Lancashire Jack led the way down to the cellar, once a well made cellar, flagstones on the floor and lined sides to the walls. There were many doors leading to other sections. The first one checked seemed to be a windowless room for a child. There were sparse furnishings, a bed, a chair, a toy box, what looked liked a box for clothes.

The only light in the room was the Femur of Illumination that Jayne had created.

There were feelings of disquiet here, nothing over powering, and the toys in thee toybox were charred, though nothing else in the room was. The sound of sobbing continued, leading the group on

The next door examined was sturdy and locked. Lancashire Jack tried to shoot the lock off but ended up damaging his own pistol in the richochet instead. Robert Poldark tried the same but to no avail. Instead the two of them shoulder charged the door until it opened. They will have some bruises in the morning that will affect them, but today they are OK.

This room looked like a ruined workshop. Benches, mouldering books, broken beakers, smashed vessels, abused periodic tables, that sort of thing. The most noteworthy feature was a pair of stained glass windows, one showing a man intent on something, the other showing him in a state of decay, yet somehow triumphant. The child sized cages along one wall did not fill the group with any joy.

These proved to be doors leading to winding staircase down. This was a stair that was older than the house, whose steps did not seem made for human feet. IT lead to passageways in the rock, this was some porous material, and the water had seemed in to made the floor damp, with puddles in places.

Lancashire Jack led the way, heedless of danger, finding a small chamber in which four rotting, animate corpses were. These were far gone, covered in the same sort of fungus as the tapestry above. They lurched towards the characters, four of them. Lancashire Jack dealt one a terrific blow, knocking it back. Not to be outdone, Robert Poldark blew another’s head off, slowing it down somewhat.

Mitchell scampered forward, seized one by the hem of her rank skirt,and pulled her around, so that her back faced the group. Xavier traded blows with a fourth.

Lancashire Jack then felled his staggered opponent, whereupon Mitchell leapt onto it, bit through the next, seized the skull out of the corpse and ripped it out, trailing the spine with it, launching it upward with such great force that it flew out of the body. From almost nowhere came the deeply spoken word “Fatality!’

Robert Poldark’s finishing off his opponent with a heavy blow from his falchion was more business like, and Jayne and Xavier managed to hold off their opponents. Surrounded now though, the remaining two were easy meat and soon despatched.

Cleaning themselves up, the group passed into a much larger chamber. This was vaulted long, and at the opposite end was a throne and before that an altar. A dessicated corpse sat in the throne, though its eyes were lit by baleful fire. Manacled to the altar was the body of a small girl, dead, though it was obvious that the sobs they had been hearing came from her. Jayne, with her Shamanistic vision, saw that the spirit of the child was still bound to its corpse.

Xavier recognised the seated body for what it was, a Lich, an undead sorceror still clinging onto existence, though in this case the body was too far gone for animation, and it had to work through others. Perhaps that is why it needed the spirits of others, to fuel the exercise of its will over a greater area. Perhaps not.

Striding purposefully to the altar and throne the group suddenly became aware of a shuffling behind them. At least twenty more animate corpses of varying stages of decay and fungal infection had filled the other end are were coming forward.

Jayne started readying a spell, Lancashire Jack leapt into action, seeking to destroy the skull in whose sockets such baleful fire sat. Lancashire Jack was transfixed. First Robert Poldark, a sad relic of the child they had found before, a scorched doll, in his left hand and then Xavier tried the same, but with the same result. The three men were frozen, leaving only Jayne and Mitchell and the undead horde.

Jayne continued with her spell but, inspired some impulse, told Mitchell to free the child’s corpse from its restraints.

Lancashire Jack and Robert Poldark managed to break free of the hold of the Lich’s gaze, and Jack decapitated it, though that didn’t seem to affect it much except to make it shorter and on the floor instead of on the throne.

At this point, Jayne released her spell, a wriggling swarm of worms rained down from the ceiling of the vault. This Rain of Worms concentrated onto the Lich’s head. disrupting its concentration somewhat, having little flesh to anchor its spirit to.

******** THE BIG REVEAL ***********
Xavier, through his contact with the fungal tapestry above, had a connection that he understood, the Lich had no working body, through his binding spells the whole house was an extension to his body, and he sought power to extend that reach.

He already had his diseased living dead, like those that had been terrorising the countryside, and animated corpses, but with the power of a young Shaman, bound to his will, he could extend the borders of his control further, maybe one day to over all of England, Wales and Scotland!

The shuffling packs drew closer, some more came at that back, these looked fresher, stronger, faster,more like the ones seen outside or which had chased Jayne when she was in badger form, if they got past the clumsier ones at the front, then all hope was gone.

Robert, guided by some connection from the doll to its former owner, knew that the right thing to do was to free the child from the rune and symbol engraved manacles holding it to the altar. With Mitchell at one end and Robert at the other, the manacles were soon off.

There was a childish sigh, a breath of clean air in this dank place, and an unspoken “Thank You”, unspoken but felt. The eyes of the Lich went out. The corpses fell and moved no more and the whole area felt cleaner, tragic now rather than horrifying.

The group left as soon as they were able, getting back to the Bailiff they had spoken to. He arranged for trees to be felled, for the tunnels to be filled with fuel and for the whole lot to be torched. An unholy miasma hung over the woods for days before dissapating, leaving the world a cleaner place, terror averted and Jayne freed of the attentions of a deranged, dead sorceror. They have done good work by which they can hope to redeem themselves and carry on down the Path of Kane.

Onwards to the Port! ………. Another day

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RPG session – Solomon Kane – The Uffington Dragon

This is a write up after two RPG session conducted by Google+Hangouts and Roll20. It uses a commercial scenario. If playing in a Solomon Kane Campaign with this adventure (Traveller’s Tales, the Uffington Dragon), do not read the write up below.

The Uffington Dragon is By Paul Wade-Williams of Triple Ace Games. If you like the sound of it and want some more of his excellent games, head to their website and buy them there.


Tamsyn was the wise woman Jayne (secondary thief Alice)
Paul T was the soldier Lancashire Jack (secondary the archer Olivia)
Matt was the closet Catholic Xavier (secondary soldier Robert Poldark)

Jayne has a dog, Mitchell, a terrier

Each (as far as we know, we are not sure about Mitchell) has had a life changing encounter with the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane as on the start of a path to redeem past transgressions. Now a strange dark skinned man has reached out to them in their dreams and calls to them, for Kane is in trouble, and needs their help.

They did not start out together, but they have fallen in with each other on the road to Dover. Instinctively they found each other and are travelling together. That path has taken them through Berkshire, having travelled from darkest Swindon,

Cresting a ridge, they found a crowd gathered around a rough hewn log, so freshly chopped down and carried here that they skimped on removing branches etc. The log was placed at the head of a great chalk outline figure of a horse of dragon

Tied to the post was a girl, the crowd tried to get our heroes to just pass on, but they felt that their duty was there. Jack challenged the men, but while they were cowed, they did not back down.

The crowd insisted that the girl had to be sacrificed, to appease a dragon that had been seizing their animals and destroying their crops. And the night before, the local priest had gone to try and quieten the dragon. which legend said had been slain by a priest in Roman times, but had returned.

what happened next was a rising tension but not yet rising into violence, nor yet into making the men flee, but Jayne sent Mitchell to free the girl with sharp teeth, and the leader of the crowd was isolated.

Then the local Squire showed up, and the matter ended there for now. The freed girl explained that the leader was her father, and he was only doing what was right, and that lots had been drawn.

The party went down the hill to the village, finding big glops of blood on the chalk. And the fields at the edge of the village burned.

They went to the village, and it seemed again that they would be attacked by a mob, but promises to find the priest and maybe dispatch the dragon mollified them. They went into the inn where the learned the legend of the dragon having been slain by a sacred lance, and that the sheep were kept in an old hill fort, which is where the vicar went, thinking it was the most likely place for the dragon to attack.

That is where they plan to go in the morning ….

Having spend a night amazingly unmurdered at the Inn (it being the usual Innkeeper’s night off) the group set out into the wilder land south of the village looking for traces of the missing village priest or indeed of the mythical dragon.

The fields they passed through showed signs of scorching, but they did not investigate, going further along the road. They left the road, cutting through the ancient barrows and actually disappointed at the lack of undead rising bedecked in bronze.

They climbed up into the “castle”, an old Iron Age fort, that the locals fear as haunted, and looked around. Lancashire Jack patrolled the “walls” and spotted below him a patch of disturbed earth. The group headed that way, Mitchell romping on ahead, the group finding him worrying on an inadequately buried sleeve complete with arm, attached to the rest of the body. It was the missing priest, dead not much more than a day.

They covered the body with turfs to protect it and headed back to the village, via the cut dragon shape and the mound known as Dragon Hill.

They found dried in blood and it seemed to be dragging towards the depression known as the Manger. Mitchell ran ahead and seemed agitated, and some searching to find the corpse of a sheep, not much longer dead than the priest.

In the Dragon’s Hill there was much ground to cover. That’s didn’t bother Lancashire Jack as he quickly sketched a full relief map of the area complete with evidence from memory (excellent notice roll) findind hidden blood, most likely from the murder of the priest, and a button with some blood on it.

The button was recognised as bearing the heraldic crest of the local Squire, Squire Richards and it was remembered that his coat was missing a button when you met previously.

Back in the village, they told the villagers where to find their priest. They investigated the priests home and found the parish journal, mostly mundane matters of this sort

“Item: The said day the minister shew to the elderis present how that the last Saboathe, about the sun setting, Jhone Airthe, sone to Thomas Airthe in Tyninghame, had abused Alexander Davieson and his man in the said Alexander Davieson his hous, efter drinking…”

from the Churches of St Baldred, by Adam Inch Ritchie 1880

However, more recent entries, as well as worrying about the dragon and looking for legends of the lance that slew it. also worried about the character of the Squire. Rumlours of his debauchery had reached the priest, and there were signs he was lusting after Martha, daughter of the village smith, the most respected man in the village.

The group determined to investigate the Squire’s Manor at night, a view strengthened by gossip of the Squire’s cruelties

Lancashire Jack went to enlist the aid of Martha, only to find her missing and her father gone looking for her. Meanwhile riders left the manor bearing burning torches, This might be a good chance to investigate with the Squire’s thugs away.

They headed t the Manor, Grey Alice sneaking in to discover chanting coming from a room in the manor house. The group burst in, finding the Squire about to rape Martha to an A Capella accompaniment with satanic overtones

Xavier cast a fear spell, causing the two chanters to flee, stunning themselves  in the process. The Squire was gibbering, even more so as Lancashire Jack and Robert Poldark  put the frighteners on him

Mitchell rescued Martha again, and they turned the Squire over to the villagers, his plot to cow them into servile obedience with the dragon and his own vile perversions brought to light, the villagers planned to defend the village against the bullies and to bring the Squire to trial.

Our heroes leave, onward to aid Kane

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Thoughts on World Holocaust Day – 27th January 2015

Today, 27th January, is World Holocaust Day, the anniversary of the liberation of the camp at Auschwitz

This is not just “something to remember so it never happens again” because it has happened again, it continues to happen again. Not on the same scale, but it happens again.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi Death camps was not just the mechanised, bureaucratic mass slaughter, but that a country that seemed advanced, learned, civilised, perpetrated this

And this is what goes on,. When we seek to find some group to feel superior to, when we blame a minority, demonise them, make them an enemy, call the disabled a drain on the state, paint the victims of our hate as villains, then we are taking steps down that same horrible road.

Anyone that knows me might figure why this might mean something to me, but I want to add pictures taken a few years after by my late father-in-law, Jim Ritchie.

Nothing graphic, nothing explicit, he was stationed in Germany a few years later during his National Service, and he took these pictures at Belsen. There are a few pictures I did not include, simple pictures, small markers, just a mass grave 500 here or a 1,000 or 5000 here, but ultimately, as it says on one of the monuments, an unknowable number.

This isn’t just about Germany, this isn’t just about Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, it happened there, but the seeds are there, in our lives and the lives of people we read about, that it could happen again, and we should do what we can to prevent that

The photos are of a wooden sign outside Belsen, the stone sign marking the gates of Belsen, the Jewish memorial, the front and back of the Soviet memorial, and the last a photo of Jim Ritchie, he’s the one in civvies.

belsensign

Sign at Belsen

 

http://its-them.me.uk/salienthurcheon/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/belsen_lager.jpg

Stone sign at gates of Belsen

 

cjc_memorial_bergen_belsen

Central Jewish Committee memorial at Belsen

 

SovietMemorialBergen-Belsen

Soviet Memorial Bergen-Belsen

 

jr_react

Jim Ritchie

The one in the suit

 

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The Road goes ever on and on

So, I have now seen The Battle of the Five Armies, or at least the theatrical version, the “definitive” version will be the extended version when it comes out. I enjoyed them, immensely, they were fun. They were not the books, and there are scenes I miss, and I would, as always with Peter Jackson’s films of late, cut down the chase sequences, but I really enjoyed them. They hit the right notes. There were a couple of changes I think worked better for a film that has to fit in with Lord of the Rings, the changing of the quest not to an assassination, but to get the Arkenstone to unite the dwarves, and keeping Thorin dignified, rather that keeping some of the slapstick things that happen to him in the book.

I want to talk about criticism of the expansion of “The Hobbit” that many have complained about. As I have said before, trying to keep the Hobbit as a children’s book with no reference to the later tone of Lord of the Rings is a non-starter. This is confirmed by Tolkien changing a whole chapter of “The Hobbit”. In the original Gollum was not a vile monster. Gollum wagers a “present” if Bilbo wins the Riddle game. He can’t give the Ring to Bilbo, as he has lost it and Bilbo has found it, so he shows Bilbo the way out.

In fact Tolkien intended to rewrite the whole of “The Hobbit”, not just that chapter, but his publishers persuaded him to stop. The version we know is still, however, the one with the rewritten chapter.

That was not the only thing Tolkien did to address the differences in tone and history. The Council of Elrond has a lot that ties together the two books. The Appendices for Durin’s folk gives some context to why Gandalf would want to see Smaug gone and the Orcs shattered. That brief part is a summary of “the Quest for Erebor”, a version of which is included in the “Unfinished Tales”. The Appendix also gives some of the other history that forms the basis of the “flashbacks” in “The Hobbit” movies.

Some excerpts from the Quest of Erebor

  • I knew that Sauron had arisen again and would soon declare himself, and I knew that he was preparing for a great war. How would he begin? Would he try first to re-occupy Mordor, or would he first attack the chief strongholds of his enemies? I thought then, and I am sure now, that to attack Lorien and Rivendell
  • To resist any force that Sauron might send to regain the northern passes in the mountains and the old lands of Angmar there were only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, and behind them lay a desolation and a Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect
  • these three things came together: the great Dragon with his lust, and his keen hearing and scent; the sturdy heavy-booted Dwarves with their old burning grudge; and the quick, soft-footed Hobbit, sick at heart (I guessed) for a sight of the wide world.
  • “But you know how things went, at any rate as Bilbo saw them. The story would sound rather different, if I had written it.
  • I had other business in Dol Guldur more important and perilous than all the treasure of Erebor.

This covers “The Hobbit” differing from “facts”, or at least Gandalf’s point of view, because Bilbo is now covering up how he got the Ring, the need to do away with the Dragon and the desire to recapture Angmar and the coming together of fortuitous elements that Gandalf used to his own ends.

These are the main part of the changes to the story that Peter Jackson put in, so to criticise him for the things Tolkien intended is unfair. Film and books are different, Tolkien understood this, during an earlier project to film Lord of the Rings, Tolkien suggested that the Battle of Helm’s Deep could be dispensed with, and he was happy just to leave Saruman locked up in Orthanc if necessary for time.

The other changes some have complained about are to do with characters. Existing and new. I’ll pick on one of each, Bard and Alfrid. Bard doesn’t appear until Lake-town is attacked by Smaug, and then his heritage, and gloomy is explained as part of the description.

This doesn’t really work for a film, so instead he is introduced earlier. How to illustrate his character and heritage? Interaction with other characters, so we have him meet the dwarfs, become part of the debate on helping them or not and have a lackey to the Master, Alfrid, to interact with. Alfrid can encapsulate the deviousness of the Master, without people wondering why the Master is bothering with this random person.

Film is a different medium, you can’t have footnotes or text description as you have in a book, so you have to show, and have some way to work it into the text. You could do exposition, but that is clumsy, so you have to use a more natural way to work it in, which is what Peter Jackson did.

One last thing to deal with, the look of things. As a Tolkien purist, I know it is a world of mailed soldiery, the plate of the Dwarves and Gondor has no place there. However, lots of mail clad soldiers tend to look alike. now, you could give everyone a key to the heraldry so you can tell them apart, or you can give cultures distinct looks, to make it easy to distinguish, which is what he did.

The end results, is a set of films that explains the background to the conflicts of The Hobbit, takes you through them, gets you to understand the conflicts of the characters (including the dragon sickness of Thorin that the 1960 rewrite would have made more of) and gets a lump in your throat at the end, and a delight when it ties in to the start of Fellowship of the Ring.

I look forward to my first run through all six films!

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Cthulhu Lives – an Eldritch tribute to H. P. Lovecraft

Disclaimer: I was given an uncorrected proof to review by the editor. There were no conditions placed on the review.
Book available from all good stores and a few tax dodgers too. Publisher’s site with links here

It is a good time to be around if you like the Cthulhu Mythos. Perhaps too good as everything seems to get a Cthulhoid twist. I am almost expecting Cthulhu Disney Pricesses (and I bet if I Google that I will get some hits on that, in a pulp horror version of Rule 34)s.

The Mythos is not really a unified logical whole, no matter the efforts of August Derleth to impose one, but some things shine through, common themes of humanity’s insignificance in a universe more cruel and oblivious that we can imagine, except for the story you just read on that very topic, and certain story formats. Lovecraft did not just write the single plot format, but he had a few favourites, the “peeling of the onion” with layers of the story being revealed to unfold the horror being the classic, such as “The Innsmouth Horror” but he also wrote fantastical tales too like “The Doom that came to Sarnath”.

“Cthulhu Lives” delivers on those expectations and delivers well, particularly the fantastical “Scritch, Scratch”. There is no unifying theme or setting to the stories, they are disparate, but they all hit the spot in providing a nihilistic sense of doom, the abject sense of powerlessness and insignificance that we all know and love, even in the form of a love story (Dark Waters) or an eldritch revenge (Ink).

Not all the stories are perfectly delivered, The first, “Universal Constants”, should have been a shorter vignette that would have allowed the reader to dwell on the empty fate described, but most are solid, and capture one essence or other of dread. Some, like “of the Faceless Crowd” or “1884” capture the essence of Lovecraftian horror whilst not being the sort of thing he regularly wrote himself, but then neither was “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”.

“Lovecraft lives” might have been a better title, as these are not stories of the Old Ones, mainly, but, if you know your Mythos, they are there, lurking in the minds of those telling the story. Whatever drove Wilbur Whately or Richard Upton Pickman drives Conrad Delkirk in the excellent “The Thing in the Printer”. Although “Cthulhu Lives” is aimed at the Lovecraft afficionado and you get more with it, it works as a horror anthology without that background and any horror fan should pick it up.

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A description and some thoughts on the Decipher Lord of the Rings RPG

This is not a review from the past, because I never reviewed it at the time of release, 2002. However a pal asked for my thoughts on this so here goes.

The Decipher LoTR Core book is glossy and looks good, but the layout is not that great and it takes a bit of to-ing and fro-ing just to get your character created. It has one of my bete-noirs, which is text printed on pictures, which makes it very hard to update if you have the flawed 1st edition and manage to get a copy of the errata.

Although is a brief gazeteer at the start of the book, it assumes you have a decent understanding of Middle-Earth, or maybe you don’t care about exact “feel”. This can cause problems, there are references to the Valar being invoked by Loremasters, but no real info on the Valar or what their powers might be.

You create characters by points selecting or rolling attributes, picking race, order (class), skills and edges. Attributes are not used directly, but provide modifiers (e.g. a 10 Strength will give you a +2 modifier) and you can gain both skills and “edges” which are special effects and can often be unbalanced, being worth much more than a skill in the same territory for not a high enough extra costHow you get skills and spells with nebulous “picks” is actually more clumsy that experience points would be

The orders have elite versions, but the elite versions are a bit costly for what they are and you can argue that Rangers and Wizards aren’t classes, but descriptions of origin with specific meanings. If you don’t want to suffer the horrendous character creation process, then there are some pre-gen characters you can use.

The system is a simple “Roll 2d6 add skills and bonuses and beat a Target Number”. The higher your roll over the Target number then the more dramatic your success. This is also used in combat, with a contested roll, and the higher wins and gets to damage the opponent. There are would levels so that after losing so many hit points you drop down a health level. However it is hard for player characters to inflict large enough damage quickly on opponents to down them quickly. Combat will drag on unless you make the opponents have a glass jaw. Blows that hardly scratch a troll will hardly do more to a Dunlending.

The bugbear in any LoTR RPG (and I mean the RPG art of it) is magic. Magic a tricky concept in Middle-Earth. Elves and Dwarves and the ancient Numenoreans make things that have what we might call magical properties, but they consider that craftmanship. Gandalf talks about spells, and occasionally performs magic, but those he performs reluctantly, and the downside is that use of power can attract unwelcome attention, and Gandalf is an angelic spirit anyway. The conceit in this RPG is that is that the Istari trained pupils, who trained pupils and so on and so forth to the character.

The spell mechanics are inconsistent and in parts don’t really reflect the nature of Tolkien’s world (If you can understand the language of animals, then you can understand them, you don’t need a spell of limited duration which you need to refresh every so often) but to their credit they include the craft/nature aspects of Dwarf and Elven “magic” and the items given at the end are divided between “magic” and crafted. There are things to like like that you can improve your the casting of spells so that at the start there is a lot of words and gestures but at the end you need almost just to exert your will. There is good and bad magic, and using bad (Sorcery) leads to corruption (also bad) but you need to know the bad to effectively counter it. The temptations of power.

The creatures and enemies descriptions are fairly basic, as a supplement came out for it

OK, so what do I make of it. I wouldn’t play it unless you and your players are willing to put a fair bit of work flipping back and forward and house-ruling the bits that don’t work. It is badly laid out and there are too many flaws. There is the feeling that this wasn’t play-tested enough by devious or attentive players to pick out the imbalances and the silly like the fact that you have a rich edge (Hoard) but wealth isn’t really a feature of the game and you have to have an exception rule for enemies you can “one-shot” making the heroic aspect hard to achieve without overriding the system.

What I did with it was mine it for ideas for my preferred system. While the system is nice and simple, there are balance problems, editing, not issues – major SNAFUs and there without the Silmarillion as part of the licence the history of the world is limited. The authors went for a book feel and their love of the books is evident, even when it doesn’t quite make it through the system. So ideas like magic attracting attention, corruption as a measure (you can reduce corruption by heroic and selfless acts), those I stole. If you can get it cheap or just like fondling glossy books or a nutty completist, get this, otherwise look at the new “The One Ring” or a different system and use your and your players’ knowledge of Middle-Earth to fill in the rest.

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Reviews from the Past 4 – Hammer of the Scots (1st edition)

Jerry Taylor and Tom Dalgliesh
Columbia Games
SKU 3215
$49.98

This goal of this strategic level simulation of the Scots Wars of Independence, best known through the historically illiterate film Braveheart, is to control the majority of Scots nobles by the end of the game. The map is divided into the home fiefdoms of the nobles, each with a differing ability to raise and sustain troops and nobles will change sides either through defeat in battle or because their fiefdom winters under enemy occupation so be wary of sacrificing units and land.

MapThe mechanics of the game are simple and elegant, command and control is handled by movement cards that limit how many army groups can be moved in any turn, fog of war by not allowing your opponents to see the value of your troops until combat is joined and end of year bookkeeping is handled in a simple book-keeping turn. Combat means rolling a die for a chance to reduce the enemy’s strength, differing speeds of troops allow faster but numerically inferior troops to defeat a superior enemy.

This game is fun and easy to play with intriguing strategy. The level of historical accuracy is good, though some geographical liberties have been taken with the fiefdoms for the sake of game balance and the field of the arms of the Bruce family is incorrect. The components are colourful and well made with wooden block playing pieces, a card mounted mapboard, dice and a mixture of movement and event cards, although no year marker. The rules are mostly clear, and the website has clarifications and errata.

Rating A-


From what I can tell, the Third Edition (3161 Hammer of the Scots $64.98) has slightly changed rules and map

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The adventures begin

Fort Mawrcant guards the mouth of a tributary of the Black River, keeping watch on the Picts but also serving as a trading post. The fort is built of stone and timber, but trading happens outside and away from the walls, in tents that are broken down each night and erected in the morning. There may be peace just now, but no commander of the fort has yet been foolish enough to let down their guard.

The biggest, best and only inn in the fort is busy tonight, the mates of one of the soldiers are celebrating his promotion and, more importantly, his posting to a command of his own, albeit a small company in an interior road fort. Thus a rag tag collection of wanderers are in the small back room, listening to the conversation of three old, injured men, obviously soldiers pensioned off but whose farm grants are probably local to this border.

“Those young rogues know nothing…” one starts

His friend interrupts

“You say that every time. Let them have their joy, we were young once.”

“Aye, but we lost it in the sack. The burning folk, still alive and still screaming. That will be the fate here one day. Maybe not for those drinking here today, but if not them, then their successors.”

A well-built but clean man, he has the look of an merchant selling to soldiers to you, but a fair one otherwise he’d be missing fingers.

“What do you mean? I do not know of this fort having been sacked”

The oldster replies
“Not this Fort Mawrcant, the original, the one for which this was named. It sat in an island, downstream a half mile or so. It sits on a great circle of rock, from which it gets its name. It was thought safer from the Picts than being on land, though the Picts  would stream across on their canoes from time to time,  we held them back.

“Then one day, one day the ground opened up, and the Picts came over the walls as more Picts, or something like, came out of the ground. The Picts we could thrust from the walls, those inside were our undoing. Few of us escaped, Fewer are alive now to remember it. There may be gold there. There was rumours of a paychest, but none dare go there, even those who do not know the island’s history seem reluctant to stay there.”


Bladyyn lead the way for this motley group of new acquaintances. Bladyyn and Lydyn, the two Bossonians, from further East, Aswolf the Aesir heading south and Arum, the Shemite heading north and Tyrok, of no known people. Bladdy found the long overgrown trail that took them north and through the woods before emerging into a place where the river bend and broadened, with almost a small bay in the riverbank.

The island was hidden from modern Mawrcant, and the trees covering much were young, moving in after the night of horror destroyed the oupost. Bladyyn and Aswulf cast about to look for wood and things with which to construct a raft, when they found an open area near the water with what lookd to be the remnants of a boathouse.

As they approached, however, they were surprised by three worlves jumping on them from a nearby bank, Luckily, though startled, all flinched out of the way and Bladyyn struck the nearest wolf stone dead as two more rushed out of the boathouse. There was a tussle in which Bladyyn cut down two more wolves, Tyrok and Aswulf killed the others, but Tyrok and Arum are wounded and Lydyn is down, savaged by one of the wolves which jumped on him. However the wolves were finished and Bladyyn could bind his brother’s wounds.

The boathouse proved to be their den, and Bladyyn and Arum cleared it out as Aswulf and Tyrok carried Lydyn in and onto a hastilly thrown together pile of bedding. Once a fire was started and they settled in, an inspection of the boathouse found a couple of boats in an adequate state of repair lodged on racks, They would leak, and would need bailing, but they would get them to the island.


I had forgotten how deadly combat is for low level characters in D&D style games, and why getting to second level was such a big deal, because so many die at 1st level. Lydyn was on 0HP, so am using the optional rules and he can heal himself when he regains consciousness. Each round up to CON roll Save vs Death-ray with CON modifier as a bonus/penalty.

The adventure will continue!

 

 

All that needed to happen would be for Lydyn to heal a little….

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Back to the Past

Many, many years ago I played Dungeons and Dragons, then Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Those were what are called “Class and level role-playing games”. The players picked characters who had professions (classes that defined their skills and abilities and those characters would achieve advancement in all skills simultaneously by rising a “level”. I graduated to other games, and moved away from “class and level” to other systems, which had allowed characters to have a broader range, and to improve n different ways.

However I am have been tempted to return to class and level principlally by the Conan meets Cthulhu style RPG Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerors of Hyperborea. However I can’t get a hard copy yet, to import the boxed set would cost at least $120, and even printing the PDF ain’t cheap.

However, thanks to a nice Puerto Rican chap , Roberto Micheri, I took a look at Basic Fantasy. That also is available (free) in PDF form but there are Print on Demand versions of the in rule book and some of the scenarioscheap from Amazon. Those and other adventures and material are also free from the site. The authors seem to be doing it as a labour of love. There are modifiers to the basic classes that allow for barbarians as a background, rather than as a class, and the other “quasi-classes”make for good secondary professions to the main class.

The plan is still to work in a Hyborian Age Campaign,  with adapting pre-written scenarios and campaigns to that world. So, the characters

Aswulf of Asgard, Aesir Fighter and Barbarian (Quasi class version)
Bladyyn, Bossonian Ranger, brother of Lydyn
Lydyn, Bossonian Cleric and Bard, brother of Bladyyn
Arum Shanash, Shemite Necromancer and Sage (quasi-class). Masquerading as a Sage with some magical skills
Tyrok. Thief and Archer (quasi-class). Background uncertain, short, thick boddied andwith certain preternatural abilities, some suspect him of having pre-human ancestry

Next, the adventure begins

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Review: “Royal Armies of the Hyborian Age” – A Wargamers Guide to the Age of Conan – Lin Carter & Scott Bizar

raothaThat these fantasy wargames rules, first published in 1975, are still in print, or at least available in PDF, is less a testament to these rules and much more about the strange business habits of Scott Bizar, who kept products technically available, if for no other reason than to prevent the rights reverting to the author. I am reviewing a printed copy, that comes with a card rules summary, but these days you can only buy, as new, the PDF version here. This is not a complete game, you will need percentage and average dice, figures, terrain and a tape measure or two.

As the introductions make clear, Lin Carter’s contribution is for the “fluff” of the world, but the rules are Scott Bizar’s. REH shared a problem with many authors, including JRR Tolkien, that they did not take us gamers into account. They write no Orders of Battles, inventories of equipment, description of supply arrangements, ranges and effects of spells. It’s almost as if they did not think of us when they wrote. They couldn’t have been that thoughtless? Could they?

“Royal Armies” is concerned with set-piece field battles of organised armies. If you are looking for the set of rules for the Cimmerian attack on Fort Venarium, then it’s not these. The number of turns in a battle are limited, simulating effective daylight/fair weather. Commander should write orders at the start of each turn for what they want their units to do, including the magicians and the spells they wish to cast.

Each turn  has two phases. They can perform an action (change formation, change facing or move) in each phase, as long as it’s not the same action (cavalry get to chance face and formation as part of a single move). Movement and Combat is held to be simultaneous, rather than IGOUGO, which means that some fiddling has to be done occasionally to reconcile the actions.

Formations affect movement and combat, a column moves faster than a ring or a line, but a line can bring more of your strength into battle, and a ring stops you having a rear or flank. Terrain also affects movement and combat, including when archers can fire over units in front of them.

Contents - from Boardgamegeek The presentation is dated, but this is from the days before DTP, or even mass word processing. It is typewritten and printed in a light brown colour for some reason. there is no column layout or sidebars, all the text across all the page, and few illustrations, though at least those are by legendary Conan Illustrator Roy G. Krenkel. There are no pics of figures in battle. There are not even drawings of the national flags/symbols, just descriptions. The organisation of information is primitive, there is no simple step by step summary of the turn sequence for example, so you have to read through the text. You will find yourself flipping back and forward so, if you intend to play, you are better to print these rather than use a tablet or ereader.

Scott Bizar has made some compromises from what he would have written for some rules and what suits the Hyborian Age. Historically the morale of armies  determines who wins or loses. The loss of life can be relatively light, and many seem to come when the victors pursue the losers as they run away, but in Howard’s world units fight to the last man, so they are more likely to do so in these rules. Even failures in morale don’t cause units to disappear as they do in more modern rules, instead they retreat or lose some figures but will fight on.

The authors admit that some of the choices made might seem out of sorts with the stories. they also not that although arquebuses feature in one story, and crossbows in other, they don’t think these are suitable weapons, though crossbow rules are given. To compennsate, some armies get wooly mammoths!

The game also features some notes, I hesitate to call them guidelines, never mind rules, on running a campaign. If you have read anything else about running wargames campaigns then use the information there and adapt to your Hyborian Age campaign. There are compromises here too, not all nations are considered strong or organised enough to take part in a campaign, so might be better used for random events or for one player to invade then another player defends with an army from that nation. In addition, Khitai and other places  are missed out as being too far away. If you want to run a campaign there will be a fair amount of work to do, on campaign maps, counters for armies and random terrain generation. The campaign is split into 35 turns, which are the number of weeks in a year that campaigning is practical.

The wargame uses units of single figures, with a 20 men to a figure scale, though it recommends mounting figures in groups of 3, with one of those groups split into a base of 1 and another base of 2, to aid in casualty removal. Unlike many of the rules at the time, the troop types are kept simple, no WRG obsession with insane classifications of morale, arms, armour and training so the troops are infantry/cavalry/chariot, light/medium/heavy, there are only 3 levels of training/morale determines  and the only differentiation in arms is to note any spear/pikemen or archers.

This is partly down to the variation in the “age” of the troops described in the stories. The Stygian are like Ancient Egyptians, but the Aquilonians would not sound out of place riding with the Black Prince 3,500 years later. Corinthians come between the two, they need to simplify to gloss over the discrepancies.

“Royal Armies” uses units comprised of single figures. The listing of the nations tell you how many figures are in a unit, along with the morale rating and the armour weight.

E.g. A unit of Shemite archers are 18 B class Light Infantry figures whereas a unit of Bossonian Archers are 24 Medium Infantry figures.

There is a point system (suggested army point value is 1500) but the points cost is not given in the description of available units, so you will have to calculate these yourself. When buying your armies you have to also take into account percentages of how many of  a given type can be in that nation’s army and, just to be complex, the proportion is not in points, but in figures.

There is a reason for using single figures rather than element bases. Not only does that allow for changing formations but the number of casualties inflicted is calculated as a percentage of the number of figures able to get involved n the fight. Both melee and missile combat use an averaging die (not 1-6 but  2, 3 – 3, 4 – 4, 5 so use a normal die but count 1s as 3s and 6s as 4s) and the result multiplied by the number of figures is the percentage of casualties caused. No saving die here. Here some maths is involved, you take the percentage off the number of TROOPS being aimed at, at the 1-20 ratio, and you then take off 1 figure for each 20 casualties caused.

e.g. 12 Nemedian Archers fire at a unit of 10 Gunderman Pikemen, they have already taken some casualties. The roll is 2 and therefore 24% of casualties have been caused (2 rolled x 12 figures). 10 Pikemen figures represent 200 men, so 24% of 200 is 48 round nearest so 2 figures are removed.

(That’s how the rules express it, you could just work on the percentage of figures without bothering with the ratio conversion).

Of course it would not be the Hyborian Age without Heroes, Generals and Magicians. Each army has a commander, represented on the field by a figure with no combat value, but with the ability to bolster morale. You can only have one Hero per 750 points, Superheroes cost two heroes. Magicians should not be the focus of an army, and only Stygia might have magicians as a regular part of the army. Not all armies will have magicians, but an appendix lists the various mage organisations, who they might work with and the costs for a mage and the limitations.

For example, a Pictish army might have White Druids, but, as their magic needs the use of intoxicants, they have a 50/50 chance of being too insensible to be of use.

The point cost of the magician, is also the number of spell points they have to cast spells, the more magicians, the more spells you have available. Spell use has to be planned and written into your orders. There is also the chance that spells will backfire. Such fun! And yes, you can collapse hills onto enemy armies if that is your tactic, and try to capture the hero and Thoth-Amon is powerful.

These are a very usable set of rulesy. Yes, they could do with editting and better organisation, but they are vary playable and give a reasonably fast game. There are nice little write-ups for each of the nations and the magical societies, but the view of the Hyborian age is Lin Carter’s, so you may disagree with some of it, but the rules have concentrated on land action for the big armies and they let you get on with that. There is obviously no easy link to your role-playing campaign, but it should not be beyond a group to do this, though they might want to have someone act as umpire if playing the campaign version.

If you want to set up a wargames campaign then the classic book would be “Setting up a Wargames Campaign” by the late Tony Bath, particularly as his most famous campaign was the “Hyborian Campaign”. You can find out more about that here and here.

 

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