Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Episode 04 - Harald's Contract

Welcome to the fourth episode of Vikings True20 Actual Play. Sven has decided to reinforce his ships for the trip upriver, and while waiting, the group meets yet another odd resident of the trading city of Aldeigjuborg.

The music is from Warrior ( The SoLariS Remix ) by SoLaRiS available at ccMixter. You can find out more about SolaRiS at Jamendo.

The map of Lake Ladoga as shown to the players.

Aldeigjuborg is on the Viking trade route to Miklagard (Constantinople). You can read a very brief explanation of the route at Wikipedia.

You can download the audio file here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Episode 03 - Aldeigjuborg

Welcome to the third episode of Vikings True20 Actual Play. The group arrives in Aldeigjuborg and find both a Varangian guard and a truth-sayer.

The music is from Warrior ( The SoLariS Remix ) by SoLaRiS available at ccMixter. You can find out more about SolaRiS at Jamendo.

The map of Lake Ladoga shown to the players.

The Wikipedia entry on the Varangian Guards.

The podcast referred to in the opening is Return to Northmoor, and the episode was "D&D and Story Games: Will they Blend?"

You can download the audio file here.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Salting the Steak

I was listening to an outstanding episode of Return to Northmoor entitled "D&D and Story Games: Will they Blend?" There is a lot of really excellent content in this episode and the second part, and if you are listening to our actual play episodes you'll probably hear some of the suggestions put to practice.

One point that really hit home was Doyce Testerman talking about playing 4e without tweaks first. He related a story about a guy who didn't get a job because he salted his steak before tasting it. There's no way to make an informed decision about the taste of the steak once the salt has already been added.

And I salted True20 before tasting it. That was a mistake.

I'm an inveterate tinkerer. I love to play with systems. That got the better of me after reading True20. I totally see myself in the following quote from Uncle Bear: "I am a rules hacker. I could take a perfect system and find something I wanted to change, or try to improve, or add to in some fashion. That is my nature. That is part of what makes things fun for me."

In my defence, it is a little hard to know what a system can do without actually playing it. I would have started the game differently were I to start now.

First, I would have started the characters at a higher level, probably 6th. Hit point bloat is not an issue due to the Toughness save. This would have made them much more capable in all the ways that mattered.

In the first encounter in Ravenwood, fighting Hygelac's warband--the first combat in which the group was involved--the warband would have been minions. The characters would have mowed through them, which was how it had been envisioned. This would also have lessened the impetus to create the Iconic Weapon house rule.

While the combat bonus from the Iconic Weapon house rule would have been unnecessary, I think the standardized damage still has a place. If one wishes players to choose weapons for their characters based on style, a standard weapon damage for all weapons will achieve this.

As for 2d10, this is something else I think I'd still use. I prefer bonuses to be really meaningful, even at lower levels. 2d10 helps to achieve this.

All that being said, I am planning on running True20 with rules as written, no house rules. Whether that will be a one-shot or the next campaign, remains to be seen.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Episode 02 - Trolls and Tribulations

Welcome to the second episode of Vikings True20 Actual Play. This episode records the group's combat against an ice troll.

The music is from Warrior ( The SoLariS Remix ) by SoLaRiS available at ccMixter. You can find out more about SolaRiS at Jamendo.

The house rules used in our Viking True20 campaign can be found in the House Rules posting.

The map of the Neva River as presented to the players.

You can download the episode here.

House Rules

When we started out campaign we neither expected to be recording actual play episodes, nor did I know True20 very well. This led us to adopt some house rules. I have adopted house rules with every system I've ever ran, and of those I suggested, a couple were adopted. A third was adopted after our first session.

I've compiled the house rules below and the reasons I adopted them.

1. 2d10 replace 1d20
Mechanic: Whenever a d20 is required for task resolution, 2d10 are used instead. A natural 2 (both dice present a 1 as their result) replaces a natural 1. Natural 20s (both dice present 10 as their result) for an attack roll is an automatic critical, and does not need to be confirmed. In all other ways, natural 2s act as natural 1s and natural 20s act as natural 20s.

Reasoning: If I understand the math correctly, a single die provides a total variation of results, in that one number is just as likely to appear as any other number. Given this, until one has bonuses upwards of +10, it is just as likely to fail horribly as succeed, even at a task with which your character is proficient. 2d10 creates a greater likelihood of medium results (8-12) with less and less chance of extremes (natural 2s and natural 20s are extremely rare, hence the lack of critical attack confirmation). This also means that bonuses have a greater impact on outcome.

2. -1 penalty per Wounded condition
Mechanic: For each Wounded condition a character receives, the character has a penalty of -1 on all checks, including attack rolls and Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saving throws, but not Toughness saves or Constitution checks. The penalty is cumulative, so if a character has 3 Wounded conditions, the character has a -3 penalty.

Reasoning: I prefer a system that models deteriorating physical capabilities due to physical damage. In the d20 system, physical damage has no impact on a character until that character is disabled. Basically, the character goes from 100% to 0% in an instant. True20 is better, as a character with a Wounded condition has a -2 penalty on checks. I wanted something to show the continued punishment a character might be taking is continuing to impact on that characters performance. As a character can have multiple Wounded conditions, and those are easy to keep track of on the character sheet itself, it seemed an easy way to model deteriorating capabilities.

3. Iconic Weapons
Mechanic: Each character chooses one type of weapon (sword, axe, bow, etc). With that weapon, the character gains a +4 to attack or defence (decided at the beginning of each combat round). Further, an iconic weapon always has +4 damage.

Iconic weapons inflict no penalty when used for ranged or melee combat, so a sword can be thrown without penalty and a bow can be used in melee without penalty.

The combat bonus and iconic damage can only be used by one weapon per round, so if a character is fighting with two weapons, only one of the weapons gains the +4 combat bonus and damage rating of +4. The second weapon would not gain the +4 combat bonus and would use the normal damage rating for its weapon type.

Reasoning: In movies and books, heroes often use specific weapons for stylistic reasons. By setting the damage rating at +4, it allows for a player to choose a weapon based on character concept or style and not be penalized. All weapons end up the same, to the weapon choice becomes a stylistic one.

Many heroes are also known for their skill with a particular weapon. While the weapon skill could be modelled through the use of feats, I wanted to provide the characters with a level of cinematic skill without forcing a payment in feats. Further, fiction often portrays characters using weapons in a fashion for which they were not designed, such as throwing a sword or clubbing an opponent with a bow. To model this, I removed penalties for such uses.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Episode 01: On the Road to Aldeigjuborg

Welcome to the first episode of Vikings True20 Actual Play. If you haven't listened to the story so far, you might be a bit lost.

The music is from Warrior ( The SoLariS Remix ) by SoLaRiS available at ccMixter. You can find out more about SolaRiS at Jamendo.

Our heroes have entered the trade route to Constantinople in earnest. You can read a very brief explanation of the route at Wikipedia. The group is on their way to Aldeigjuborg in search of the Bulgar Gold.

The condensed skill list can be found at my workbench at the Accidental Survivors forum.

You can download the episode here.

Conclusions from Session One

Originally posted at Sword's Edge Publishing on January 14th, 2009

The first session didn’t totally sell me on True20. I realized this was partly my problem. I was still stuck in a d20 mindset. I missed the Minons rule, which would have made the combat with Hygelac’s warband fit my preconception. Also, while the iconic weapon concept I mentioned in my last post dealt with the combat competency gap, this could also have been dealt with--mostly--with the rules as written.

true20_header_left_1.jpgHere’s the thing: I started the characters at 3rd level to give them some experience. I chose 3rd level based on my d20 experience--the character is more capable, but is not yet nigh-invulnerable due to high hit points. Without hit points, I could have started the characters at 10th level.

Because the Toughness save doesn’t have level dependent bonuses, a 10th level character is as vulnerable as a 3rd level character, unless the 10th level character has burned feats on increasing his Toughness. I should have started the characters at 6th or even 8th level. That would have made them as competent as I had hoped, but would not make them tanks--the outcome of starting at such as level in d20.

A couple of problems remained, based on the conflict of my conception and the True20 rules.

Players would still choose weapons based on the mechanical benefits, or if they chose based on style, would face mechanical penalties. Giving iconic weapons a +4 damage allowed players to choose style over mechanics without penalty.

While a wounded character did have a penalty to most actions, it was not progressive. It was only applied once, no matter how many times the character was wounded. I changed that to a - 1 penalty per wound. It creates the kind of deteriorating condition for which I usually look.

Having addressed those problems with house rules, True20 is now chugging along very well. Truth be told, though, I have never met a system I haven’t house-ruled, so only applying two house-rules (so far) is impressive in itself.

One thing I couldn’t figure out and I need to research is the use of ranged weapons in melee. I know how d20 deals with it, but I couldn’t find anything in True20. Given that I totally missed the Minions rules, this may simply be my oversight. I’ll check back in later if I learn something more. As it was, the ranged weapon in question was an iconic weapon, so no worry.

Vikings True20 - The First Session

Originally posted at Sword's Edge Publishing on January 13th, 2009.

So, the first session.

I had forced the players to provide character concepts without the mechanics. This was kind of a history meets character niche posting. This was what we used to build the characters in True20. It worked surprisingly well--at least for me. The biggest problem during character creation was that I only had one book and there were five players. I really liked building from concept to mechanics, and the structure of True20 allowed for a pretty open process. With only three classes and builds based on feats and powers, the class decision was pretty much made for us.

I also devised some character backgrounds and updated others to match the historical setting. That was fun.

My only issue with True20 was how it approached multi-classing. Maybe it’s the d20 Modern guy in me, but I like multi-classing as a means to create unique characters and complete character concepts. The only real penalty in True20 to multi-classing was to saving throws. While the impact is minimal, especially at higher levels, as I was hoping to create real heroes, I waived that penalty, and allowed character to multi-class freely--however, the character only had one core ability, based on the character’s first class.

The character creation actually took a bit of time because we only had one document. One of the players already had True20, but we were using the revised version, which had a few minor changes. Another player had the quick-play rules, which are apparently significantly different. Given that, the Revised True20 book was in great demand.

The characters were:
Holm: an older Viking who lost a hand to access the Odinpower, much as Odin lost his eye
Audun: an Orkneyman who is part Celt and has access to that culture’s magic through his mother’s blood
Blatik: a Frank who was fated to kill a god or forever suffer servitude
Theodore: a Byzantine scholar, out to learn about the world
Nimet: a Magyar wanderer

Finally, characters all ready, we embarked on the adventure. The players had been asked to provide a reason why their characters would gather at Ravenwood, a small hold on the shores of the Baltic, near modern Rostock. The hall at Ravenwood is the fastness of Hygelac, who calls himself the Goth (purposefully anachronistic, and referring to the Germanic tribe rather than the modern emo-culture).

At the hall, a seeress, called the Angel of Death in the village, indicates that the group have a shared destiny, and marks each of them with a rune, granting each access to a “mythic power.” Most of the group picked their power from a list, though some accepted random assignments. We had two characters who already had limited access to magical powers.

As he had dreamed of Holm coming and taking his sword, Hygelac precipitated a battle, which drew in all the PCs due to their shared destiny.

And this is where I fell down as a GM. I’m familiar with the d20 system, but not totally with the True20 system. Toughness saves were new to me. Further, I hadn’t noted the Minions rules. Minions would have worked perfectly for what I had envisioned, but instead, the group struggled through a very difficult battle.

This led me to do two things. First, I reread the rules, and noted the Minions rules. Second, because I wanted every character to be somewhat useful in combat, I created “iconic weapons,” a weapon type that is tied to a character.

Each character would chose a specific type of weapon (longsword, scimitar, longbow, whatever) and when using that type of weapon would gain three benefits. 1) A +4 bonus that could be applied to attack or defence, based on the player’s decision at the outset of combat. 2) A +4 damage rating. 3) Can be used in ranged or melee without penalty.

The reason for 1) was to allow the character to excel beyond their mechanics in combat. Even a character built to be a scholar would have a fair chance in combat. Those who are built for combat are truly frightening.

The reason for 2) was that I wanted characters to choose weapons based on concept and style rather than mechanics. If you want to play a dagger-man, you can, and it can be as effective as a sword! True20’s more abstract combat system makes this workable even with two-weapon fighting, as it only adds a +2 to the damage.

The reason for 3) was simply based on the cinematic and action-adventure bent of the campaign. In many books and movies, characters are using bows like clubs and throwing swords as a last resort. This allowed for that level of cinematic action.

And all of the bonuses for the iconic weapon were based on a concept of cinematic action rather than realistic. The more abstract combat system of True20 helped this along tremendously. I also made a ruling that there was no need to track ammunition. I adapted the Savage Worlds system for Allies which gives a variety of categories to track ammunition usage rather than tracking each and every arrow. This means that we can go with the fiction of a 6 second combat round that includes multiple attacks or attempts, all defined by a single roll. I’ve discussed my thoughts on that elsewhere.

Defeating Hygelac and his warband, the spirit of the Angel of Death reveals the existence of the Bulgar Gold and divulges that Thorgil of Visiby in Gotland knows its secret. Off the PCs go to Visiby, only to learn that Thorgil was just murdered. At first, the PCs are suspects, but they are able to gain the trust of one of Thorgil’s friends, and through him, Thorgil’s wife. Thorgil’s wife could not help them with information on the Bulgar Gold, but directed them to Thorgil’s sister in Balagard.

Through his mythic power of Object Reading, Nemit saw a vision of a red-haired man in a red cloak murder Thorgil with his own sword during a friendly conversation. The murderer was identified as Sven Helmcarver, a sea-king (leader of a large warband and fleet, but without any land) of some renown. Sven and his ship, the Wolf’s Breath, had set sail the morning before the group arrived--the morning after Thorgil’s death.

The group set off after Sven, believing he too sought Thorgil’s sister in Balagard.

All in all, I thought it went pretty well. I was wrong, though, as we lost one player. The player who ran Blatik did not feel the game was suitable for an inexperienced player. I asked, through email, for more information on what the problem might be. I wrote that if the player enjoyed the campaign, then we could fix whatever deficiencies he may have encountered. I never heard back, so I figure he either didn’t enjoy the company or the campaign.

Down to four players, which, for me, is the sweet spot. I would have liked to have heard more from Blatik’s player, and since a lot of the plot was altered to suit his character’s background, I was sorry to lose his character. In the end, though, the players that remained expressed enthusiasm for the campaign.

The Pre-Game Meet

Originally posted at Sword's Edge Publishing on November 23, 2008

Before I went forward with the game, before I put more work than a basic outline and intro scenario, I wanted to meet the crew I had assembled. There was one reason and one reason only: I didn’t want to game with someone with whom I wouldn’t be willing to sit down at a coffee shop and chat. Call it elitist, but I don’t want a walking embodiment of all the negative gamer stereotypes in my game.

There was some discussion of possible meeting places. I found further proof, if I needed any, that some groups--especially at their inception, require someone to make the decisions. There were suggestions, but no real votes or support for any of these suggestions. As such, I chose a coffee shop that worked for me and set a time that worked for me.

One player dropped out day of--but it was work related. I can dig that. It doesn’t happen a lot to me these days, but I’ve been in that position. So, a meeting with four out of five players. I had had six, but the one player that I actually knew and a schedule conflict, so he’s out until possibly next year. We shall see.

Of the four in attendance, one had played before with the missing member. That was a bonus. The experience level was incredibly varied, from a few games to a decade plus. That’s cool. I actually dig that. That kind of disparity in experience can be brutal when delivering training or teaching, but in a game I think it adds some spice, different perspectives and hopefully different styles.

We did a meet and greet, and just talked gaming for awhile. Then I got down to business. There were a few things I wanted to do.

I wanted to give everyone a good sense of the game I wanted to run. In this case, it was set in 988 AD Scandinavia but in a world not necessarily our own. This is a place of myth and legend, where magic and monsters may exist. Also, the players were going to have control of the game in that it would be a pure sandbox. I would drop hooks and quests for them, but they could ignore those with impunity. Finally, the characters were going to be the heroes. No 10th level bartenders. No 10th level city guards. They were going to start at 3rd level and that meant they were already exceptional.

I wanted to discuss house rules. I had a list of changes I wanted to make to the True20 rules. We discussed my reasoning. Some of the rules were adopted, some were shot down, and some were parked for later consideration.

Finally, I wanted to hear their character concepts and discuss them if possible. Only two people had concepts, and only one of them fleshed out to any degree. We did have a discussion on my philosophy toward building characters, that is begin with a concept, flesh out the concept, and we’ll build the mechanical part later.

In the end, I believe the meeting was successful. I believe I transmitted both my enthusiasm for the game and the concept for the campaign. The proof of this, though, will come when we next meet for a character building session and first few games.

The Character Concepts

Before the first session, I asked all the players to come up with a character concept. This was to be completely narrative. We would figure out how the mechanics would deliver on the concept later. I think the concepts turned out great, and I was really excited with the cast of characters that arrived at the table.

The thread in which these concepts were delivered, and in some cases discussed, is here. Below is each character's concept, some with an extensive history, and then a little "cut scene" I wrote based on that concept. These scenes were intended to help give the players an idea as to the motivator and the stakes of the campaign.

One note, I have not included Blatik, because that player left the game. I am including the character's cut scene, though, because it is very important to the campaign.

So, that scene first.
Vindonnus watched the spring, watched the sunlight reflect off the water. He gloried in it, gloried in the feel of the sun. It gave him power and it gave him hope. From out of the spring came weak laughter.

"You are as lost to this land as I, spirit of ancient Gaul."

Vindonnus frowned. "Show yourself, Trickster of the Ice Wastes."

That laughter continued, growing in strength. "Show myself? I dare not. Do you not hold a grudge for my trick with Sucellus?"

"Trick? You have doomed him, and in doing so may have doomed us all." Vindonnus' hand passed through the spring, disturbing nothing. He felt rage burn through him.

"Are we to be the only immortals to face death? I think not." In the bubbling water, a wavering image of a dark-haired, thin featured man appeared. "Did the whelp believe the note?"

Vindonnus' fist closed, touching nothing. "You soon will find yourself facing a whirlwind of your own making."

Loki's image began to fade. "Have you not heard? That is my particular specialty."
Audun was born to the great Viking Jarl Thorfinn Skull-Splitter. Thorfinn was known for his long voyages raiding the coasts of Ireland, England and France. While on one of these raids Thorfinn, who was now reaching the end of his youth and career of freebooting, sacked a small Irish town and monestary. The plunder was not great and his men were greatly disappointed so he decided to bide his time there and allow his warriors time to relax and enjoy the local “hospitality”. It was during this short visit the now middle aged Thorfinn met Ciedre a local dark haired beauty. He would allow no man to force her and even he did not take her as his own. He would not, however, let her be parted from him and when he and his longships took to sea Ciedre went with him, never to see her beloved Ireland again.

Returning to the his lands Thorfinn knew his jealous wife would not allow him to keep a concubine who had so thoroughly ensorcelled him. So he kept her aboard his flagship only staying at his longhouse for one night. He arrived late while his wife was still abed and ordered none to wake her. He left before morning light and set sail for the most northern island of his kingdom, the Isle of Unst.

It was on Unst that Thorfinn spent the entire winter trying to win the heart of Ciedre. Days ran to weeks and weeks to months but Ciedre was the daughter’s of Celtic Kings and Thorfinn was an aging warrior who had spent nearly his entire life at war. He had no skills at romance but he could never force himself on the beauty Ceidre. He would drink and rage swearing she would never leave the island lest she gave into his advances.

Ciedre was more than simply the daughter of an Irish King (really not much more than a chieftain) it had long been said her family had the blood of the faerie. Certainly Ciedre had always known she had the Sight and she knew that Thorfinn’s threats were real. If she did not give into his desires she indeed would spend the rest of her days on the windswept rock that was her new island home. She new the only way she would ever be free of her lonliness would be to give into the lustful urgings of the old warrior.

So as winter began to slowly began to loosen its grip on the Orkney’s so too did Ciedre loosen her resolve and on the holiest day of her people, Beltane she finally accepted Thorfinn into her bed. For many more weeks Thorfinn remained and in his clumsy way he loved Ciedre. It was with great reluctance that the old warrior prepared to return to the main island for the ice had finally broken and Thorfinn had a vast realm which required its lord.

For several more years Thorfinn continued to return to Ciedre’s bed and as time went on he came to value her advice and the power of her visions. Always Ciedre knew the best time to go a “Viking” and which landfall would result in the most booty. Thorfinn came to cherish her more and more and finally he came to the Isle of Unst for what he thought would be the last time. For this time he came to bring Ciedre back with him to his hall in Midenland and make her his wife.

When he arrived at the tower that had been her home for these past years and told her of his news there was no joy on her face. Yet she would not be pressed and said simply that she would be honoured to be his wife and accompany him back to his hall. All she asked in return was that he gift her something so she not arrive at her wedding day a pauper and Thorfinn agreed that she would have the Isle of Unst for her dowry so that she would not come to his bed a slave without house or home.

Ciedre knew, for in these things she was never wrong, that she would never be Thorfinn’s wife. For on the crossing to Midenland Thorfinn took a chill and was so ill he too knew with the sight that men get close to death that he would never rise from his sickbed. It was worse for Ciedre told him she was with his child and he knew the son’s he had raised like wolves of his pack would not abide another, in particular one they saw as weak. Thorfinn had his shieldman of many years, Ulfgart, swear that he would safeguard Ciedre and tell all she was his wife. On the beach of Midenland Thorfinn gazed one last time on the beauty Ciedre, she would not leave the ship for she swore that the next land after Unst would be her homeland or no other.

In that year Thorfinn’s son’s struggled after his death and after a bloody year four son’s remain, none supreme over the others and content for now to share rulership of their northern realm. Within this context of intrigue, war and double-dealings none have noticed that the loyal Ulfgart has set up house from the dowry of a young wife from an isolated island.

Audun was born into this turbulent time but owing to the vigilance of his mother and the loyal Ulfgart (and in no small measure the isolation of the northern Isle of Unst) he has remained sheltered from the affairs of his bloodthirsty brothers. He left his island sanctuary several years ago and has traveled the extensive reaches of the Norse hegemony. While he has no specific desire on the lands of his father it is probably only a matter of time that the rumours about his birth become enough of a concern for whichever brother finally overcomes the others.

It is clear Audun is of mixed blood, to all his physique is that young Viking warrior. Tall and long of limb with clear blue eyes and chiselled good looks. However his hair is that of his mother long and pitch as moonless night. What is not apparent speaks even more of his mixed blood. Ciedre his mother knew from the beginning Audun too was born with the Sight and she also knew that somehow the dark grim gods of his father were at work at his birth. She saw that they too had gifted her son but these “gifts” were not ones she wanted him to have. She knew she could not stand between her son and the will of these Northern gods so she used her skills to protect her son and control the blood debt that the magic’s of the north normally required.

Audun simply goes by his first name though the men of the Falcon have come to call him “Ravenhair”. He is a grim warrior who speaks little of his past. He has an uncanny ability to sniff out ambush and Toste has come to rely on Audun’s counsel. While accepted by the crew (his bravery has been shown many times) it is not just his strange dark hair that keeps him from being totally counted as one of their number for in times of battle and sometimes during storms or rough water some of them have sworn they have seen glowing lines along the arms and chest of the young warrior.

Toste saw the tattoos, saw them glow. He hadn't believed it. Hadn't wanted to believe it. He valued Audun. A good man at the oars. A good man in a fight. But those marks? They weren't runes. Toste had travelled wide. Audun's marks? Celtic.

Toste wouldn't throw a man off his ship for being a Celt. What did he care? But glowing in the dark of a storm? That unnerved him. He had seen sorcerers. There was an old Laplander who wore women's clothes and had only one ear who could heal a man after three feet of iron pierced that man's chest. Such a man was certainly useful.

No, he didn't hate sorcerers. He just didn't want one on the Falcon.


They felt it. They all felt it. Something pulled at them, stole the very breath of the Tuatha de Danaan. It woke the Sidhe, woke them from a deep slumber. Slow to rise, they exchanged glances. A preternaturally long finger, with a nail akin to a claw, ran down a jawline.

"It draws on us, draws on our power." Golden eyes blinked. "Not from Eire. From abroad. Who would dare?"

"They forget." This one was a female, long and lithe, eyes of shining violet. "We sleep a century, and they forget."

He rose from the stone of his bed. "We should make them remember."

The sensation vanished as suddenly as it appeared. Only a whiff of it, the barest scent, remained. Her lids slowly drifted lower on her eyes. He held her arm, cold as fire.

"Do not sleep. Do not." He wasted his words. "You will wake. We will all wake. We are not to be used. We do not offer our gifts freely. This one will be made to pay. This one will be made an example."

The taste of it remained. Only a hint, but enough. His tongue slid out to catch it. He licked his thin, blue lips. "Ah, yes, Ciedre. I dreamt of you. Dreamt of you on your island. This tastes of you, but you would not dare. Your mother taught you that much." He frowned. "But to whom did you pass on your gift? You have no daughter."

A low, cold chuckle rippled through him as he lay back on his slab. "A mystery. Amusing. I will find you, poppet. I will find you in my dreams. And then I will awake. Oh, I will most certainly awake."
(Toste ended up becoming an important ally for the group, and remains part of their warband, along with twenty of his crew that survived the fire in Balagard. While they seem threatening in this little scene, the Sidhe have not disturbed the group . . . yet.)

In his youth, this Viking warrior has been through a many of raids and battles. But each Viking horde he has ever fought with has been beaten or horribly crippled.

After years of this: He’s known to be bad luck to have in a battle. Oh sure! Others will still share a drink and talk to him, he has after all seen many things in his travels but no one is on his side when there’s a fight to be had.

After so many years of always being on the less favorable side of things. He swears he'll figure out how to never lose a battle again.

Now old and headed towards the end of his life. He found himself in a horrible storm that whipped up while traveling between two ports. The old Viking found himself shipwrecked on the shore of an island. He looked for any of his shipmates but couldn’t find any other survivors. He did however find an old man, who stood tall, and was far older than he was, dressed like a shepherd and with only one eye. The old man recognized him and commented on his bad luck. The old warrior said he would change that.

"AH!...I’d give a hand to rid myself of this bad luck."

At which point he held up a hand, and two ravens swooped down and took two fingers on his left hand (pinkie and ring).

“A price such as that wouldn’t be a whole hand” the shepherd said as he turned and walked away. As the old Viking is left failing on the ground with more pain in his hand then he has ever felt. The old Viking did see the two ravens that took his fingers land on the shepherd's shoulders.

The Old Viking sudden woke up in the woods. When he picked himself up he looked at his hand; the fingers look like they have been cut off and then the wounds cauterized, his hand is a mess of scar. He knew he’s only a short walk from a village called Ravenwood (a place he’s never been), he doesn’t know how or why but he knows he’s meant to be there.

Odin watched the old Viking rise and consider his now mutilated hand. Munin squacked.

“Bad luck?” The All-Father shook his head. “It held him by the throat through his life, but no longer. I saw the weave and I saw it plain--his ill fortune sank with that ship. He came to shore a man over whom the Fates have no power, save that which he would grant them.”

Hunin shook his wings. Odin nodded.

“Aye, such a man is dangerous, but better to have such a one in my hall at Valhalla, at my side when the End comes than have him die a sea-death. And now, with his sacrifice, he can grasp the Odinpower.”

Both ravens danced on shoulder of the Lord of the Aesir.

“Yes, this old one has given a sacrifice, perhaps not without compulsion, but it has been done. I have my reasons. Ancient enemies stir and this one may soon find himself embracing a destiny the Norns could not force upon him. When he dies, as all men do, I wish him to find a seat in my hall. Ragnarok comes, and we must prepare.”

The old Viking began to walk toward the hall on the shore--Ravenwood. Odin’s eye narrowed.

“He will know this place, though he will not know why. It will draw him, and in it he will be tested.” Odin stroked his beard. “We shall then see. We shall certainly see.”

I was thinking of being from a noble family or a family that has lots of land and is well off. Well I was growing I was training to be a fighter like all in my family, but I got severely injured and broke my leg. I was ok but bed ridden for months for it to heal. In this time to help my boredom my sister got me a book about some far of place from (now I'm right really sure where books would be, I know way back when most writings where stored in church's I think, but you can tell me where you would think). I would be more interested in writings about documentation of events and places from all over. So I devoured the knowledge wanting more and more.

Once my leg had fully healed and I had read everything I could find in my area I went out into the world to find more to learn. Because of my injury I have a limp in my right leg. My father was not very happy with me leaving and forbid it, but I left any ways. I travelled to larger populated areas to find more documentation to learn about the world. My father sent people after me to bring me back but I got any. After travelling and not finding much but still having so many questions, I decide to set out and learn things myself, first hand. Documenting everything in my books. Making new scripts for people.

I'm thinking of playing a scholar type of character. Me inspiration in early naturalist from the 1400's, where they travelled around learning and documenting the world. Be it animals, plants, cultures, geography, even medicine. They did it all. So like a bard scholar, I guess. I good example for what I mean is the Paul Bettany character in Master and Commander.

I'm not sure what area I would be from, I figure you can tell me what would make the most since. I wanted to all about travelling, seeing new things and learning new skills. Using all that I have learned to continue on my adventure. I wanted to be like a walking encyclopaedia, I would not know everything off hand. But I would have info on many things in my books I would carry. My main book which I would write many of my discovery's would be a large book with metal plates to bind it and I would use it as a weapon. Another major piece of equipment is my walking stick. I wanted it to have carvings all over it of places and things I have seen. It would not be any great piece of work since I would have done it myself, but I want it to be hollow in the middle and the ends come off to make a blow gun. For the blow gun I would like to know (or be trying to learn of, as it could be a work in progress) a poison to use with it. Preferably a sleep or paralyze or just weaken poison as I would not really be to interested in fighting, more talking my way out of it.

So as for getting to Ravenwood, well I'm not sure if you said it was a Viking city. If it was, then I figure I would have just gone there to learn about the Viking culture. If not then I would have gone to learn about the people and lands in the area.

The dark-haired, thin featured man with the silver chain, baldric and sword frowned. "That scholar saw the runes in this? Copied them?" His finger tapped the book, its covers dark leather and worn, a metal lock with sturdy straps binding it.

A short man in a monk's robe and cowl bobbed his head. "Yes, milord. He had the abbot's favour. He were a bright young one come from the Greeks."

"From Constantinople, actually." The dark-haired man, whom the monk took to be some great Northman noble, smoothed his long moustache. "And travelling into my domain, I think. But if he has this . . ." His fingers drummed along the book. "He copied the comments and sigils into another book, you say? Did it appear similar to this? A large book with metal to bind it?"

The monk nodded again. He avoided the dark-haired Northman's eyes.

The book disappeared into the Northman's cloak, its bulk and weight gone. "No one else saw it? Please assure me no one else copied it."

"Only myself and the abbot ever knew of it." The monk laughed nervously. "And it's scribblings meant nothing to me."

One of the Northman's eyebrows raised. "Indeed? And the abbot?"

The monk swallowed--loudly. "I can't say if he ever read it."

"In these matters, it's best to err and remain safe rather than court regret."

The Northman slid on gloves of supple leather. As he did, long arms thick with muscle reached from out of the shadows to take the monk by the neck. With the sound of a cracked walnut, the neck collapsed under the massive hands. Out of those shadows stepped a woman, tan of skin but with long fair hair and a sharp face. She easily stood two or three hands taller than the Northman, and he stood almost six feet himself. She dressed much as he, though she bore no weapons.

The powerfully built woman let the body of the monk fall. The Northman knelt beside the corpse. "Give my regards to my daughter when you see her. I doubt your saviour will forgive this treachery of yours.” He rose. “Well, Angrbotha, it seems we have an abbot to kill as well, then a Byzantine whelp to hunt.” He sighed dramatically. “Five hundred years ago, this all seemed so amusing, but it has quickly become tiresome.”

Angrbotha’s voice came deep yet still feminine. “How is it that you can’t easily find this whelp you want us to hunt?”

“I wish I knew.” The Northman paused. Again an eyebrow shot up. “Do you hear it? Do you? I swear to you, I hear Vindonnus’ laughter. This game of gods has proven much less profitable than I assumed. If my father learns of it . . .” The Northman closed his eyes and a slight tremor ran through him.

“Or your brother.”

The Northman’s eyes shot open, but Angrbotha was already through the door, her back to him. He glared, but then the look of anger softened. He glanced around himself, at the shadows of the dark and Spartan cell. “No, that would not do at all.”
Nimet is a skilled Magyar horseman and scout. For over 18 years he served with distinction on a number of Magyar raids across Eastern Europe. In all that time he never questioned the wisdom of his leaders and commanders. But in recent years things had slowly begun to change. A new religion, Christianity, was gaining a foothold with the Magyars, indeed his lord Vajk, or Stephen as he was now known, and other leaders had converted to this new faith.

He was not afraid of losing the pagan traditions of his homeland, he was never much of a religious man to begin with, nor was he opposed to the new tenants of the new faith, some seemed to have merit in his eyes. Nimet felt that this Christianity and its ruling pope were usurping control of the Magyars from their rightful rulers. The wisdom of his elders seemed to be failing and with it could destruction be too far behind?

For Nimet the only solution was to get out and see what he could make of himself away from his homeland. Thus, early one morning he took his horse, what possessions and provisions he had and left. For a few years he moved around Europe, hiring himself out to mercenary companies as a scout and messenger.

For a while Nimet made a good living scouting for different companies, but his fortunes turned sour about a week ago. After returning from a scouting missions he had given his report to the leader of the mercenary company he belonged to, a disagreeable German named Klaus. Klaus did not like the news that Nimet brought back, and refused to believe that his enemy was so well armed and armoured. Nimet did his best to convince the general that his attack would be folley but Klaus wouldn’t listen. The attack proceeded and ended with Klauses army thoroughly routed. Enraged and blaming the defeat on Nimet’s Magyar tricks he ordered his men to find Nimet and bring back his head. Nimet just barely escaped, but lost his horse and much of his belonging in his flight from Klaus’ men. Stumbling through the dark he happened upon the lights of Ravenwood and headed in to seek shelter and food for the night…

The soft churchman in the expensive clothes spoke quietly to the Empress. “We have nothing but the vague murmurings of a witch. I understand your need to make examples, but frankly this seems more like Klaus’ mistake than an actual betrayal.”

Klaus took a step toward the dais at which Empress Theophanu sat and on which the Archbishop of Mainz stood. “You have done good service to the crown, I am told, but I’ll not have a clerk impugn my honour.”

Willigis quickly turned on Klaus. “You will be silent.”

His sword had only moved a hair’s breadth out of its scabbard before five of Willigis’ men had spears levelled at Klaus’ heart. A short man with swarthy features and a broad chest sauntered from the side of the dais to stand between Klaus and the archbishop.

“They tell me you are an important man.” The short man wore the archbishop’s colours over his mail, and had a sword at his side. “They tell me you’ve got titles and lands and a voice at the court. I don’t have any of that. I never will. I have the archbishop.” The short man smiled as a wolf would to a deer. “And that means I value my life less than his. You do not ever threaten him. Ever.”

“Call off your dog, Willgis.” Klaus’ hand moved away from his sword.

“He’s no dog, Count Klaus of Erpesburc, but he is my prefect and my captain.” Willigis nodded and his men moved away from Klaus. “You will find that Captain Theodulf is not a man with whom to trifle.” He turned back to the Empress. “Mistress, I beg of you, let us focus on items of greater import. One lone scout, some barbarian Hun, means nothing against the danger posed by men like Henry of Bavaria.”

“I cannot ignore the witch’s vision.” Theophanu covered her eyes. “Otto is so young. We have seen already the danger this world holds for him.”

“If I may.” Klaus did not continue until both the Empress and the archbishop had their eyes on him. “I agree that the Empress has more than a simple wandering Magyar to worry about. Your captain thinks I am an important man, though I am not. Give me twenty men, seasoned soldiers, and let me find this traitor. If he poses a threat to the young Emperor, I will end that threat. If he does not, what is the life of one bootless barbarian?”


The woman leaned close to Theodulf. “And they agreed?”

Theodulf considered the woman. Tall and lithe, she came of Norse stock--her parents came to Germany as merchants. He had known Tora all his time in the archbishop‘s service, and had loved her as long.

“They did, but my master fears Klaus has some other reason for this. Henry’s attempt at holding the young Emperor still worries him. He wishes for me to follow Klaus, watch him, and see to it that he does what he says.”

Tora’s eyes widened. “How long will you be gone?”

The question pleased Theodulf. “A few months at the most. Not even Klaus could be so feckless as to lose track of one lone scout. Though we will be in the lands of the Wends, the Abodrites as these Germans say, and that may cause some delay.”

“I’ll pray for you, pray to the old gods.” She touched his cheek. “Luck in battle and a good homecoming.”

Theodulf wanted to take her up in his arms, pull her to him, but he did not. Could this be sisterly affection? He hoped something more. When he returned, then he would see. “I will think of you.” He took her hand and kissed it, the most he would chance, then turned and left.

In the darkness of the kitchen, alone, Tora began to blur and shift. Where a moment ago a young Norse beauty had sat, now a dark-haired, thin featured man with the silver chain, baldric and sword filled the chair. The dark-haired man smoothed his long moustache. “A Magyar scout destined to shake an empire? It seems my game has called forth pieces from far reaches. It does add some spice, some interest. If only Angrbotha had thought of some more entertaining prophecy with which to frighten the Germans.”

The dark-haired man shrugged and he began to fade. Soon all that remained were the echoes of his final words. “This will do. This will do nicely. What move now, Vindonnus? What will you do to save your brother?”

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Episode 00 - the Story So Far

This episode summarizes session 1 and 2 of the Vikings True20 campaign as our actual play recordings began with session 3.

The music is from Warrior ( The SoLariS Remix ) by SoLaRiS available at ccMixter. You can find out more about SolaRiS at Jamendo.

For information on the sources used for research and inspiration, you can read Step Two: Research on the blog.

The inspiration discussed in this episode includes:

- The 13th Warrior, a movie
- The Long Ships, a novel
- Walt Simonson's run on The Mighty Thor comic.

Download episode.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Step Two: the Research

Originally posted at Sword's Edge Publishing on November 13, 2o08

In the previous post, I described how I got the group together. But once that group is together, then what?

I gave lots of options as to what we could play. I was going away to Korea for a month, so I wanted to have an idea of what we would be playing before I left. Not only did I leave the system choice open (though I stated I hoped to play True20), I gave campaign ideas from high fantasy to dystopian SF, from Greek hoplites to space marines. The sheer number of options may have stifled some people--sometimes too much choice is a bad thing. A couple of people piped in mentioning sword & sorcery and Vikings.

So I suggested an S&S Vikings game, and no one disagreed, so that was to be our campaign.

The options I provided were all ones I had considered or on which I had done some preparation, so none of the choices would have been odious to me. Being a new group, none of whom knew each other, I think there may have been some hesitancy regarding choosing the kind of game. What I didn’t want to do was dictate a type of game and then lose players. Perhaps I gave too many choices or perhaps the players just wanted to play something--anything. Whatever the case, before I left I had my campaign genre.

I had plenty of time to prepare while in Korea. We were visiting family rather than doing the tourist thing, and I had time during my daughter’s nap, when no one else was around, to read, speculate and make notes. I had a notebook specifically for the campaign with me. I also brought three books to use for reference and inspiration.

The point of having a notebook--to me--isn't to take long notes or develop anything, it's there to catch all your thoughts. I just scratched down anything I read that sparked my interest or gave me insight. There was no rhyme nor reason.

Now the notebook I had was divided into 4 sections. This is useful because now I use the first section to scribble anything that pops into my head. The second section is where I develop ideas. The third section is for developing NPCs. I don't know what the fourth section will be for, though I'm sure I'll find a use.

I would suggest at the research stage, you only worry about getting ideas, gathering background knowledge, and sketching out general concepts. If a particular scene comes fully formed into your head, absolutely write down something more substantial, but don't worry about form. Get the idea down in a way that you can return to it and develop it.

As for the books, I took three because that's what I had room for. I was travelling. If you are at home, you have access to many, many more. Since my return, I have fleshed out my knowledge with some other references I'll refer to below.

A Brief History Of the Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans? by Jonathan Clements was my main Viking reference. This gave me what I needed for the historical background of the Vikings and their culture. It is a very high level, global consideration of the Vikings and their history, focused clearly on the Viking Age, from around the 8th to the 11th century. It also gave a nice background on the Viking religion and superstitions.

I used the Last Apocalypse by James Reston as a general guide for the era leading up to the first millennium. I had read the book before, and I remembered enjoying it. The discussion of issues surrounding Scandinavia made much more sense after learning about the Vikings and their history.

I read the Long Ships (original title in Swedish was Röde Orm, or Red Orm, a reference to the main character) by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson for inspiration. I had developed a concept from reading Clement's history, but the Long Ships gave me another, more practical and grounded quest--the search for the Bulgar Gold. Also, it gave me some concept of the actual environs of the eastern trade route with Constantinople, at least up to the cataracts.

All of these references gave me tidbits that I added to my background information notes, as well as plot ideas and character concepts. Further, they all provided names. This is something that I prize like gold. I like to have a list of names for men and women so that NPCs can all be named.

On my return, I was able to borrow a copy of Vikings, a recorded lecture series by Kenneth W. Harl.

This series of recordings was much more in depth than the Brief History, but it also ate up almost all my podcast listening time. To be honest, it was worth it. Dr. Harl is a good speaker, at least on CD, and I actually listened to the lectures in order once, then I listened again to the ones I thought of particular value. As a podcast listener in the first place, listening to a series of lectures wasn’t something out of the ordinary. For others, it might not go as well. Also, as I was usually on the bus or walking while I was listening, I couldn’t take notes as ideas hit me, so it was not ideal for me.

And I, of course, consulted Wikipedia often, especially to verify my notes from Dr. Harl's Vikings once I returned the CDs. But Wikipedia was also useful to read about things like the Volsung Saga or Hrolfr Kraki, to get a kind of cultural grounding.

The 13th Warrior was also a huge influence on the game I had conceived and therefore a type of research. I loved the scene bringing the group together, which is why I poached it. I loved the fatalistic philosophy of the Vikings in that movie--no man escapes his destiny, you die when it’s your time no matter what, so why try to hide from death? I loved the specific roles for the characters. This was all a large reason for my choosing to pursue a Viking game.

With a solid idea of the background and historical context, a good grasp of the game I wanted to play, I began to compile my notes and actually got down to writing the introductory scene. I had already adopted the scene in which the 13 warriors are chosen in the movie the 13th Warrior as the method I would use to glue the group together. Their destinies would be tied, and to break faith would mean they would all die within the year. That gives a narrative impetus for the group to remain together, even if in the game there is character conflict.

But I didn’t go too far. Not until the first meeting.

But that’s another story.

Getting the Band Together

Originally posted at Sword's Edge Publishing on october 31, 2008.

So, I finally got a group together to game in Ottawa. It took some time and no small amount of effort, and I won't claim complete success until we're in the campaign swing, but I am optimistic.

First off, how did I gather a group? As with my other two times in Canada without an RPG group, I went to the internet. My first efforts bore no real fruit. I believe now that was because I was too specific. As you can see from my invite, I already had specific games and campaigns mentioned. When I went about the second time, I was completely open, merely mentioning getting an RPG group together on every other Thursday. That is what got me recruits.

The second time, I also targeted three venues. First was Kijiji, which is an internet messageboard for buying, selling, and connecting that my buddy Colin (he of the GenCon Survivors) mentioned. Second was a Yahoo group for D&D in Ottawa.

But the one that worked best was Meetup. Now, I wasn't about to shell out the money to start a club, because I don't need that, but I do know through anecdotal evidence that this can work. Instead, I did a search for groups like Dungeons & Dragons, d20 or just RPGs. I joined the waiting list, then when I was ready to start the group, I went to the profiles of other recent joins looking to find games and emailed them from their profiles. This is where I got the majority of my responses.

So far, I have gathered six potential players with two more possibles.

Given my experience, if you want to either get into a game or start one, it is best to begin by being open to any option. If you can find a list of individuals in your area interested in gaming, such as that provided by Meetup, targeted emails are very effective.

Next, I'll write about what thoughts and references have shaped my concept for the upcoming campaign and what my next steps will be.

Welcome to the Warband

The Ottawa Warband, that is. By that, I mean the role-playing group that assembles at my place every other Thursday night.

Now, I've already discussed, to some extent, the creation and first session of the campaign. I'll repost all that information here. Some of the posts to this blog will be repeated in the Campaign Journal section of the Sword's Edge Publishing website.

There will be something you find here that you won't find anywhere else. That would be the Actual Play recordings of the campaign.

The sound quality is acceptable, as Actual Play recordings go. We're using a digital voice recorder, cleaned up to some extent with Levelator. There has been some editing, but not a lot. Right now, things are crazy busy at home, but you can expect the first few recordings soon. The very first episode is a "zero" episode, a "the story so far" episode, as it were.

Hope you enjoy the ride. I assure you, we all are!