Thursday, December 15, 2011

more Skyrim musings

I was disappointed that the new Elder Scrolls game didn't have a Hardcore difficulty setting to activate. This means that I attempted to play the game with my own self-imposed restrictions. I never used the fast travel ability to select an already-visited location and magically teleport there. I tried to sleep at regular intervals, even though dungeon delving sometimes meant that I wasn't keeping track of the world clock. I tried to eat food items regularly, whenever I found a leg of roast goat or a slice of cheese I would consume it, regardless of whether I would recover health from it or not.

These self-imposed restrictions extended to my extra characters as well. In fact, I constructed my third character believing that I would be making the game incredibly more difficult for myself, and I ended up stumbling upon the most powerful way of playing a character.


This is Nelra Olim, an Altmer (the Tamriel word for high elf) from the country of Cyrodiil. His primary goal is to join the College of Magic in Winterhold. He is loyal to the Empire despite it's rather impersonal bureaucracy, and upon entering Skyrim he is quickly caught up in local politics by being mistaken for a rebel during a nighttime skirmish. Almost executed at Helgen keep, he is freed by an Imperial soldier named Hadvar when a dragon attacks the town, and is led to the town of Riverwood where Hadvar's uncle gives him food, shelter and a lesson in leatherworking.


Annoyed by the rebels he was almost executed with, Nelra decides to use his magic to support the Imperial Legion in quelling the Stormcloak rebellion and heads off to Whiterun, the Hold capital. Along the way he spies a giant attacking a farmstead and quickly rushes the field to assist the few armed souls fighting it off. As the frosty chill of his magic defrosts off the corpse of the giant, their leader compliments his deft fighting ability and tells him to seek out the Companions, a guild of honorable mercenaries. Nelra politely declines and continues on to the court of Whiterun.


In the hall of Jarl Balgruuf, Nelra explains the dragon attack at Helgen and asks for aid at the town of Riverwood. The Jarl senses Nelra's good intentions and asks him to assist his court wizard, Farengar Secret-Fire, with a special task that might help them understand where this dragon came from, and why.


Farengar explains that there is a stone tablet in Bleak Falls Barrow that he believes contains a map of ancient dragon burial sites. He hopes this will help him understand how and why dragons are returning to Tamriel. He is reluctant to send a soldier after such a precious artifact and is pleased that he is sending somebody with an apparent interest and competence with magic. After using Farengar's Arcane Enchanter as much as he is able, Nelra purchases a room at the local inn and sets off for Bleak Falls Barrow early the next morning.
Along the way he encounters another giant on the road, this one seems lonely and contemplative, like he's looking for something, and Nelra wonders if this giant is looking for the one he helped slay the previous day.


Though the giant doesn't seem hostile, Nelra moves quickly along and puts as much distance between them as he can. As he climbs higher into the mountains it begins to snow, and soon he can see the tower on the bluff just below Bleak Falls Barrow. He crouches to help conceal himself in the flurry of wind and snow, and spies movement amidst the tower. He readies a spell and unslings his long bow, and slowly begins to crouch forward. His adventure is only just beginning...


I had just finished playing through the game with an orc who never read any books, only used a Flames spell twice in all of his travels, and had nearly perfected his skills in hand-to-hand combat. In other words, a pure fighter. Because of this playthrough experience I believed beforehand that making a character who would "only use magic" would be harder. I worried a little that I might not be able to finish some of the bigger fights later in the game. In truth, being a pure wizard means I kill opponents faster but simply level up my skills slower.

There are a few challenges. Dragons are considerably tougher, I'm quaffing potions during tense combats like never before, and beginning a new combat is sometimes disorienting depending on what spells I last had active. Overall, the challenges aren't greater but they're certainly different. It's more fun this time around, and I'm enjoying playing through as Nelra Olim more than my previous characters.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

from Oblivion to Skyrim

Since my tabletop role-playing group has been stuttering along with infrequent sessions, I've been playing a lot of Skyrim, the latest entry in the Elder Scrolls series. I've adopted my friend Vince's storytelling technique of crafting my own internal story for the character I am playing within the video game, and my first character was undoubtedly a rogue.


My preferred playing style is to sneak, to backstab, to thieve. Throughout my time with Oblivion, the last Elder Scrolls game, I played an Argonian named Max who became the leader of the Thieves' Guild, took control of the Dark Brotherhood, even journeyed into one of Mehrunes Dagon's dungeons and slew his avatar in order to steal the infamous dagger, Mehrunes Razor. It became my favorite weapon. Max'es favorite weapon. And rarely was anything else used to dispatch my enemies.


When I started up Skyrim for the first time and was brought to the introductory character creation screen, I immediately fell upon the Argonian option and began tweaking the look of my character. Red scales. Smooth head. Slender body. Before I accepted my alterations I realized "I shouldn't play the same guy! I should play his descendant."
I switched the gender to female. I added feathers to the top of her head. I made her scales darker, and kept her body slender. And so Rasha, the great-granddaughter of Max, was born in a moment of frantic impulse as impromptu and clumsy as Max'es amorous encounters with Argonian women might have been. He was an assassin, after all, and not a lover.


As I played Rasha, I wondered why she was in the region of Skyrim. She never took sides in the civil war, it was of no concern to her. She consumed a dragon's soul and was called 'Dragonborn' but had no interest in such a strange and ancient power. She joined the College of Magic in Winterhold, looking for the secrets of arcane arts which constantly eluded her. She scoured the land for the Thieves' Guild, and found them lacking in strength and leadership, so she rebuilt their order in her image. She had made her own suit of armor, fashioned from the skins of the many dragons she had slain, as they seemed to follow her footsteps across Skyrim like dogs trailing for scraps. Finally, after taking so many jobs as a mercenary, after delving into so many Dwemer ruins, after recovering so many bounties on bandits, on giants, on dragons, she found what she was looking for: the dagger whom her great-grandfather had wielded so viciously, Mehrunes' Razor.


There was nothing left for her. More importantly, there was nothing left that I wanted to do. Her story was done.

So I made a new character.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

convoluted explanations

The last session was an unusual night for my players.

In the regular game, we left off with their characters spending the night at the Whispering Moose Inn, somewhere in the Imperial City. A few NPCs had been delivered to their destination, Milo had successfully bonded his new pony as a familiar, Arlen had begun looking for information about his "Talon," and Hapex had met a rather conversational cleric named Galen.

But when the players first arrived I said "Tonight we're doing something different." I handed out new character sheets, explaining that each of their characters were members of the Boeruine Army stationed in the Five Peaks. Each of them was selected by the Archduke of Boeruine himself to be a part of this quest, and I handed out character backgrounds that explained who they were playing and what their motivations were. The quest that they had been sent on was to exploit a diamond mine along a ridge of the Gorge, the westernmost mountain of the Five Peaks - a goblin-infested warren of forests, valleys and mountains.


The leader, Captain Hab Kors, was a man from a fallen noble lineage who had risen to a high position within the army quickly. His ambition to succeed would drive him to find as many diamonds as possible and bring them back for the Archduke and the good of the country. Assigned to help him were four additional officers:
his boyhood friend, Sergeant Gavin Grimm, a sour and contemptuous officer who takes out his frustration on anyone he feels he can get away with kicking;
another ex-noble, Lieutenant Tannor Hemut, a former prison warden who is also a scholar of dwarven and giantish lore, and finally, Lieutenant Soren Fuhit, a seemingly useless officer, or maybe he's there to keep an eye on all of them for the Archduke...

I assigned the characters to each player to try and exploit their strengths, and their weaknesses, as players. When I wrote the characters up I decided to assign very specific Virtue-Vice combinations to further exploit their playing styles. I did a lot of prep work to make sure everything ran smoothly and nobody would feel too unhinged by the dramatic shift in the game session for the night.

Name tags for the "new" characters...


...and the easy-to-read character sheets and backgrounds


Half of the prep work is ironic to me, because in the end no matter what happens at the end of this scenario the rules are incidental and don't matter. The main villain can't really be 'hurt' - but the players could do plenty of damage to each other!

After a few minutes of reviewing their orders, and their character sheets, I asked if everybody was ready, and I turned off the lights, played sound effects of howling wind and rain for a full minute, then read the introduction.

"You have been assigned a special quest by Archduke Aeric Boeruine himself, and for the good of the nation of Boeruine. Your team has scaled the westernmost mountain of the Five Peaks for the purpose of exploiting a diamond mine. The mine is unknown to the neighboring countries of Talinie or Tuornen, and if the native goblins had any way of exploiting it they would have. It is imperative you not alert Talinie to your presence and retrieve as many diamonds as possible. The Archduke plans on using the wealth from these diamonds to further legitimize his succession to Emperor of Anuire.
Captain Hab Kors is the commander of this quest. He has been assigned four officers to assist him as well as twelve soldiers. As of this time one of the lieutenants, Faezil Klaran, and half of the soldiers under his command have fallen ill and are bed-ridden with a fever.
A nearby tribe of goblins has been providing slave labor for your quest."

The Captain was woken from his sleep by one of the soldiers reporting that at this late hour something had been uncovered in the mine. Being disgruntled at having been woken, he dismissed the soldier, but enough of a commotion was caused in camp that the other officers were roused and Sergeant Grimm commanded three of the men to follow him along with ten goblins into the mine. The other two Lieutenants followed.

They found a passageway in the mine, fifty feet below ground, where a section of rock wall had crumbled away to reveal a small but ancient goblin altar before a set of giant doors embedded within the rock. A giant circular seal made of gold held the doors together. The Lieutenants spent a great deal of time examining the arcane symbols and scratch marks made along the surface of the seal, but could discern nothing of note. The Captain soon arrived in the mine, still groggy and upset at having been woken, but suddenly pleased at the enormous golden seal that had been uncovered. "This is far more wealth, and far easier to carry out, than having to dig for diamonds!"

The goblins were commanded to chip away at the rock holding the seal in place, and as the officers debated how they would break the gold down and remove it from the mine, it slid and fell out of the doorway, crushing three of the goblins flat. All of them got a better look at the seal now that it was out of the doorway, and they saw it was at least eight inches thick. They surmised that if the door was solid gold, that it was worth more than all of the income in every country they had ever heard of across the land!

The soldier who woke the Captain was commanded to lead the way into the entryway behind the seal, and the party soon discovered the remnants of an ancient temple. The Lieutenants and the Sergeant began experiencing visions while interacting with the relics, scrolls and other gold pieces found inside. Soon they were commanding the goblins to handle everything and put the relics into bags without directly touching the items themselves.

During this time, Lieutenant Tannor slipped away, hoping to rouse the goblins back at camp into fighting and killing the other soldiers. When he arrived back at camp, however, there are too many soldiers milling about for him to do it discretely, and he witnesses an apparition. A man, dressed in tattered black robes and a crudely beaten copper crown, taunts him, telling him that he had better work fast and kill everyone if he will have any hope in stopping the spy in their camp.

Back at the cave, the goblins seemed to begin suffering from their own visions and mania, they began fighting each other and one of them bit Lieutenant Soren's hand, which had already been burned from some sort of black ooze found in the temple's main hall. Lt Soren and Sgt Grimm began killing the remaining goblins, and the Captain also began to hear voices and experience visions, as they all ventured back toward camp the Captain became convinced that Lt Tannor needed to be made an example of for leaving them in the mine without asking for permission.

As they returned to camp, Tannor had lit the Dwarven Fire in the supply tent and flaming balls of slime rained down upon the remaining soldiers and goblins, all of them fighting in the wet mud. Tannor managed to kill the Captain with a crossbow, and Sgt Grimm ran to the dog kennel in hopes of releasing the dogs to go after the rebellious Lieutenant. Lt Soren worked his way to the mess tent, only to see that all of the other soldiers were dead, and he witnessed another apparition, this time of a giant. Ten feet tall, eight eyes, spider mandibles working in it's mouth. It spoke to him "Would you like some help?" and he said "Yes, please!" A path was shown for him to slip away from camp during the chaos, and he took it. But the path snaked upward along the mountain, which afforded him a decent view down upon the remaining events.

The fight between Sgt Grimm and Lt Tannor continued. Grimm let the dogs in the kennel loose, but they turned upon him viciously and he spent precious time dispatching them while Tannor shot several crossbow bolts at him. Still standing, but bleeding from the neck, Grimm took cover behind a tree and bandaged his wound, but Tannor quickly closed the distance between them and managed to stab him through his eye socket.

Soren witnessed all of this from his vantage point, and he thought he saw Tannor overwhelmed by goblins who had circled around the camp. But it was raining. The wind was hard. He was experiencing visions of alien and ancient creatures, in a land rich with magic and untouched by human hands. He couldn't be sure of what he saw that night, any of it.

And at this moment, I took the character sheets and personality descriptions away from the players and revealed that this episode had been narrated to their regular characters in the Whispering Moose Inn by Galen, a cleric that Hapex had met the day before.

In the story he was Lt Soren, who was a spy for Tuornen, whose real name was Arthur, and who was known to them now as Galen. He had heard of Hapex the Goblinslayer, and he wished to join their party. Perhaps in the hopes of returning to that dread place high up in the Five Peaks, and returning those goblin devils to the hell they had caused. Or perhaps simply of finding some peace for himself in the comfortable service to a man whose reputation for goblin killing preceded him in every town.

I quickly explained that Arthur/Soren/Galen's story was being told to all of them at breakfast in a private room at the Whispering Moose Inn, and allowed the players to take in everything they had experienced firsthand as part of this story. Almost immediately, the questions began to fly.

Who was the robed man?

Do we know how many giants are in the Five Peaks?

How long ago did this happen?

Arlen specifically said "We should go back there and get that gold!"

The most important information for Milo was that Galen referred to the apparition as the Cold Rider, and halfling folklore spoke of the Cold Rider as a malevolent and insidious entity that had driven the halflings from their homeland over a thousand years ago. He vehemently opposed stepping anywhere near that mountain!





GMing Notes:
Overall, the session was a lot of fun!

Vince remarked that it was a neat technique to have a story told by the players like that, because he would certainly remember it better than if I had just narrated the events from the voice of an NPC, at which point I had to reveal that I really didn't know how it would end. I needed at least one survivor to be able to relate the tale, which is why there's a sick Lieutenant back at camp, Faezil Klaran. To which everyone remarked "Oh yeah! What happened to him?"

I shrugged.

Jake was upset that I "narrated" his Lieutenant into a dying situation, ambushed by goblins returning to camp, and I said "Well, Galen is not exactly the most trustworthy teller of tales. Who knows if any of it really happened." This only seemed to upset Jake more, "I know it happened!" I'm grinning again just thinking about it.

During the adventure Colin figured out how much the gold seal would have weighed - ten tons! And the relative wealth in the game world would be 50 million gold pieces.

Yeah. That's right. Who knows if any of it really did happen?

I have to give credit where credit is due. This whole session never would have happened if it hadn't been for John Wick's brilliant writing for Digging for a Dead God. I decided to adapt the adventure to my campaign as best I could and I left some things out, I also only have four players - not six, and my game IS set in the Birthright campaign setting (think AD&D Dark Ages Highlander) using house-ruled New World of Darkness rules. Adapting a Call of Cthulhu adventure to that is a little bit of a struggle, but I think it worked pretty well and I managed to make it fit into my overall narrative.

Additional Notes:
The original adventure is set in 1930s Germany, with the players as Nazis and having access to dynamite (which I referred to as "Dwarven Fire") and machine guns (crossbows). The diamond mine is located in Africa and the "goblins" are actually native Africans. Each soldier and officer was decked out in armor and carried a sword, a dagger and a shield; but only the PCs knew how to use the 'Dwarven Fire' which I treated just like dynamite that turns into napalm when it explodes.

In the character background for Lt. Tannor Hemut I revealed that the secret of 'Dwarven Fire' had been tortured out of captive dwarves back in Boeruine, and the location of the temple had been revealed in these same dwarven interrogations.

The original adventure has six pre-written characters, so I took background elements from two characters and combined them to make Soren a spy with a bit more of a backstory, and the extra sixth character I simply thought of as Faezil, the sick Lieutenant who is absent throughout the scenario.

My players have never met anybody from the nation of Boeruine, and with this adventure I have begun to set that country up as future villains for the campaign. The players actually did a good job of being ruthless bastards without realizing the Nazi connection as well.

Finally, the original adventure is about the Yellow Sign, a symbol of Hastur from the Cthulhu mythos. In the Birthright setting there are a few references to how halflings are not from Cerilia but originally lived in the Shadow Realm, and there were only ever two references in the campaign books to a terrifying being who drove the halflings from the Shadow Realm called the Cold Rider.
The main entry in the Birthright rulebook only contains one paragraph and is written in very vague terms. It says the halflings fled from "a terrible danger" that common folk call the Cold Rider, and in other regions he is called the Night Walker or the Darkling. The paragraph ends with "the borders between the Shadow World and Cerilia have grown weaker in recent years, and strange things have been happening in the frontier lands..."
In earlier games I never gave the Cold Rider much thought, the references are too vague to make something substantial out of it, but my experiences playing Deadlands with Everett gave me a huge appreciation at adapting Cthulhu-esque monsters and situations to a game in order to make it more terrifying. In my mind the Cold Rider is very much an ancient, alien entity who would normally not pay attention to mortals, but has found that pain, especially the pain of the cold, gives him delicious morsels of psychic energy to feed off of. And like the Man in Black of the original scenario, simply knowing he exists gives him an opportunity to feast upon your pain.

In previous sessions the players ventured close to the Five Peaks, and they met a few insane people who were living around there. They didn't give it much thought at the time, but now I may have to hammer home that the Cold Rider is in those mountains, and anybody who goes there is subject to his will.

As an additional note, I always describe my world to my players as "the middle ages just before the Renaissance hits" and in discussions about the governments, religions and society in general I always remind them that "Renaissance" for a fantasy world means that magic hasn't become common yet, nobody can read and people are struggling just to maintain the status quo of survival. Magicians and wizards are looked at suspiciously. There is only one college of sorcery in all of the land and it's located in the Imperial City and is more of a political font than an actual place of study. Nobody is really educated. Nobody really knows... anything.

At this time in the world knowledge is being increased, productivity is taking hold, the humans are spreading out, and wars are brewing as nations buckle around the edges. A perfect time for dropping the equivalent of an elder god who feeds on pain and extinguishes warmth into a collection of countries all rattling the lids of their boiling pots.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

You know, there was this crazy guy who lived in downtown Madison. I suppose "crazy" is the wrong word for him, but disturbed certainly fits. Anxious. Weird. Troubled. Unique. Any of those would fit actually. He would go into the coffeeshop on State Street and get free iced coffees, he had a bent nose that looked like it had been broken when he was younger, he was tall and loud and frightening sometimes, he could be up in your face with his booming voice and asking you about your shirt, or showing off his bike, or asking you for a light. He was this tall, gangly giant who I was actually a little scared of. But he was actually very gentle, and his voice could become a whisper and when he knew he had frightened someone you would see his shoulders hunch in embarrassment and a mumbled "Sorry" would emanate from him followed by some appropriate term of endearment. He called women "babies" and he called men "brothers"

To describe him like this doesn't do his personality justice. He was a force of nature, whose words would sometimes spill out incoherently, and whose energy could spark off onto everybody in a room around them causing them to hop about with their own wild verve of commotion, and whose relaxed abandon could soothe and calm anybody who approached whatever chair he made into his throne for the moment.

His name was Cosmo, and nothing I can say will be able to describe quite what it was like to be in his presence. I didn't know him well, I probably spoke less than a hundred words to him over the years, but I knew him, as everybody knew him.

"Who is that crazy guy?"
"Oh, that's Cosmo."

When he died I cried uncontrollably after hearing the news. It was heartbreaking. It felt like a moment of history had ended, it felt like the world had truly lost something of value, though I never knew the man and could only tell you stories that I had witnessed, or that other had witnessed and explained to me. His life as well as his death touched every person who came into contact with him. In a way you could say I loved Cosmo, because he was as much a part of the city of Madison that I grew up with as any other memory I could recall.

You could say I loved Vincent Price too. He was a part of my childhood, and one of the main reasons I focused on horror movies at such a young age. I remember the first time I learned his name, while watching 'The Pit & the Pendulum' and I followed his character closely. Every time I saw the name Vincent Price attached to a film, I would make time for it. I spent many hours of my life tracking his films, watching them, and loving them.

When he died I was a little sad. Inwardly I said "Oh, that's too bad. I wish I could have met him at least once." and I made a mental note to watch one of his films in celebration of his life. His life might have touched mine, but to me he was just a shadow. An echo from the past, whose voice called out from a void. The memories I had of him were static things that could be easily recalled with the viewing of a film or the turning of a vinyl record.

Neither Cosmo or Vincent Price will ever touch my life again. When I think of Vincent Price, his death was a cursory moment, almost forgotten in the torrent of facts I know about the man. When I think of Cosmo, I feel a pang of hurt in my chest, my eyes might water and I miss not just the man that he was, but the moments that I shared with him and witnessed of him. He was a one of a kind.

This is the difference between caring about people and caring about celebrity. Celebrities are not your friends, they're not your family, they afford you no special memories, no experiences that are yours alone, and no relationship that is unique. The same shadowplay you see of them is the same that everybody else sees of them, except for their friends, their family, and their neighbors.

And if you're the sort of person who is greatly affected emotionally by the death of a celebrity, then I suggest you get out of the house more and make some new friends. Make friends with a crazy person. You could use it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

convoluted explanations

Tonight was an unusual night for my players.
In the regular game, we left off with their characters spending the night at the Whispering Moose Inn, somewhere in the Imperial City. A few NPCs had been delivered to their destination, Milo had successfully bonded his new pony as a familiar, Arlen had begun looking for information about his "shards," and Hapex had met a rather conversational cleric named Galen.

But when the players first arrived I said "Tonight we're doing something different."
I handed out new character sheets, explaining that each of their characters were members of the Boeruine Army stationed at the westernmost mountain of the Five Peaks. Each of them was selected by the Archduke of Boeruine himself to be a part of this quest, and I handed out character backgrounds that explained who they were playing and what their motivations were.

The quest that Aeric Boeruine, Archduke of the nation of Boeruine, had selected them for was to exploit a diamond mine along a ridge of the Gorge, the westernmost mountain of the Five Peaks - a goblin-infested warren of forests, valleys and mountains.

The leader, Captain Hab Kors, was a man from a fallen noble lineage who had risen to a high position within the army quickly. His ambition to succeed would drive him to find as many diamonds as possible and bring them back for the Archduke and the good of the country. Assigned to help him were four additional officers:
his boyhood friend, Sergeant Gavin Grimm, a sour and contemptuous officer who takes out his frustration on anyone he feels he can get away with kicking,
another ex-noble, Lieutenant Tannor Hemut, a former prison warden who is also a scholar of dwarven and giantish lore,
and finally, Lieutenant Soren Fuhit, a seemingly useless officer, or maybe he's there to keep an eye on all of them for the Archduke...

I assigned the characters to each player to try and exploit their strengths, and their weaknesses, as players. When I wrote the characters up I decided to assign very specific Virtue-Vice combinations to further exploit their playing styles. I did a lot of prep work to make sure everything ran smoothly and nobody would feel too unhinged by the dramatic shift in the game session for the night.

Name tags for the "new" characters...
click for bigger
...and the easy-to-read character sheets and backgrounds
click for bigger
Half of the prep work is ironic to me, because in the end no matter what happens at the end of this scenario the rules are incidental and don't matter. The main villain can't really be 'hurt' - but the players could do plenty of damage to each other!

After a few minutes of reviewing their orders, and their character sheets, I asked if everybody was ready, and I turned off the lights, played sound effects of howling wind and rain for a full minute, then read the introduction.

"You have been assigned a special quest by Archduke Aeric Boeruine himself, and for the good of the nation of Boeruine. Your team has scaled the westernmost mountain of the Five Peaks for the purpose of exploiting a diamond mine. The mine is unknown to the neighboring countries of Talinie or Tuornen, and if the native goblins had any way of exploiting it they would have. It is imperative you not alert Talinie to your presence and retrieve as many diamonds as possible. The Archduke plans on using the wealth from these diamonds to further legitimize his succession to Emperor of Anuire.
Captain Hab Kors is the commander of this quest. He has been assigned four officers to assist him as well as twelve soldiers. As of this time one of the lieutenants, Faezil Klaran, and half of the soldiers under his command have fallen ill and are bed-ridden with a fever.
A nearby tribe of goblins has been providing slave labor for your quest."

The Captain was woken from his sleep by one of the soldiers reporting that at this late hour something had been uncovered in the mine. Being disgruntled at having been woken, he dismissed the soldier, but enough of a commotion was caused in camp that the other officers were roused and Sergeant Grimm commanded three of the men to follow him and ten goblins into the mine.
The two Lieutenants followed.
They found the passageway of the mine, fifty feet below ground, where a section of rock wall had crumbled away to reveal a small but ancient goblin altar before a set of giant doors embedded within the rock. A giant circular seal made of gold held the doors together. The Lieutenants spent a great deal of time examining the arcane symbols and scratch marks made along the surface of the seal, but could discern nothing of note.
The Captain arrived in the mine, still groggy and upset at having been woken, but suddenly pleased at the enormous golden seal that had been uncovered. "This is far more wealth, and far easier to carry out, than having to dig for diamonds!"
The goblins were commanded to chip away at the rock holding the seal in place, and as the officers debated how they would break the gold down and remove it from the mine, it slid and fell out of the doorway, crushing three of the goblins flat. All of them got a better look at the seal now that it was out of the doorway, and they saw it was at least eight inches thick. They surmised that if the door was solid gold, that it was worth more than all of the income in every country they had ever heard of across the land!
The soldier who woke the Captain was commanded to lead the way into the dooway, and the party soon discovered the remnants of an ancient temple. The Lieutenants and the Sergeant began experiencing visions while interacting with the relics, scrolls and other gold pieces found inside. Soon they were commanding the goblins to handle everything and put the relics into bags without directly touching the items themselves.
During this time, Lieutenant Tannor slips away, hoping to rouse the goblins back at camp into fighting and killing the other soldiers. When he arrives back at camp, there are too many soldiers milling about for him to do it discretely, and he witnesses an apparition. A man, dressed in tattered black robes and a crudely beaten copper crown, taunts him, telling him that he had better work fast and kill everyone if he will have any hope in stopping the spy in their camp.
Back at the cave, the goblins seem to begin suffering from their own visions and mania, they begin fighting each other and one of them bites Lieutenant Soren's hand, which had already been burned from some sort of black ooze found in the temple's main hall. Lt Soren and Sgt Grimm begin killing the remaining goblins, and the Captain begins hearing voices, as they all venture back toward camp, the Captain is convinced that Lt Tannor needs to be an example of for leaving them in the mine without asking for permission.
As they return to camp, Tannor has lit the Dwarven Fire in the supply tent and flaming balls of slime rain down on the remaining soldiers and goblins, all of them fighting in the wet mud. Tannor manages to kill the Captain with a crossbow, and Grimm runs to the kennel in the hopes of releasing the dogs. Soren works his way to the mess tent, only to see that all of the other soldiers are dead, and he witnesses another apparition, this time of a giant. Ten feet tall, eight eyes, spider mandibles working in it's mouth. It speaks to him "Would you like some help?" and he says "Yes, please!" A path is shown for him to slip away from camp during the chaos, and he takes it.
The fight between Sgt Grimm and Lt Tannor continued. Grimm let the dogs in the kennel loose, but they turned upon him viciously and he spent precious time dispatching them while Tannor shot several crossbow bolts at him. Still standing, but bleeding from the neck, Grimm took cover behind a tree and bandaged his wound, but Tannor quickly closed the distance between them and managed to stab him through his eye socket.
Soren witnessed all of this from his vantage point, and he thought he saw Tannor overwhelmed by goblins who had circled around the camp. But it was raining. The wind was hard. He was experiencing visions of alien and ancient creatures, in a land rich with magic and untouched by human hands. He couldn't be sure of what he saw that night, any of it.

And at this moment, the narrator of our story is revealed. Soren, who was a spy for Tuornen, whose real name was Arthur, and who was known to them now as Galen. He had heard of Hapex the Goblinslayer, and he wished to join their party. Perhaps in the hopes of returning to that dread place high up in the Five Peaks, and returning those goblin devils to the hell they had caused. Or perhaps simply of finding some peace for himself in the comfortable service to a man whose reputation for goblin killing preceded him in every town.

I quickly explained that Arthur/Soren/Galen's story was being told to all of them at breakfast in a private room at the Whispering Moose Inn, and allowed the players to take in everything they had experienced firsthand as part of this story. Almost immediately, the questions began to fly.
Who was the robed man? Do we know how many giants are in the Five Peaks? How long ago did this happen?
Arlen specifically said "We should go back there and get that gold!"
The most important information for Milo was that Galen referred to the apparition as the Cold Rider, and halfling folklore spoke of the Cold Rider as a malevolent and insidious entity that had driven the halflings from their homeland over a thousand years ago. He vehemently opposed stepping anywhere near that mountain!

Overall, the session was a lot of fun!
Vince remarked that it was a neat technique to have a story told by the players like that, because he would certainly remember it better than if I had just narrated the events from the voice of an NPC, at which point I had to reveal that I really didn't know how it would end. I needed at least one survivor to be able to relate the tale, which is why there's a sick Lieutenant back at camp, Faezil Klaran. To which everyone remarked "Oh yeah! What happened to him?" I shrugged.
Jake was upset that I "narrated" his Lieutenant into a dying situation, ambushed by goblins returning to camp, and I said "Well, Galen is not exactly the most trustworthy teller of tales. Who knows if any of it really happened." This only seemed to upset Jake more, "I know it happened!" I'm grinning again just thinking about it.
During the adventure Colin figured out how much the gold seal would have weighed - ten tons! And the relative wealth in the game world would be 50 million gold pieces.
Yeah.
That's right.
Who knows if any of it really did happen?

I have to give credit where credit is due.
This whole session never would have happened if it hadn't been for John Wick's brilliant writing for Digging for a Dead God. I decided to adapt the adventure to my campaign as best I could and I left some things out, I also only have four players - not six, and my game IS set in the Birthright campaign setting (think AD&D Dark Ages Highlander) using house-ruled New World of Darkness rules. Adapting a Call of Cthulhu adventure to that is a little bit of a struggle, but I think it worked pretty well and I managed to make it fit into my overall narrative.

Next week will be regular gaming, the PCs need to make their way back to Caine and find out what Bort's song lyrics mean, but I just know the prospect of that much gold is going to pull at Arlen and Rafeal, and the thought of the Cold Rider loose in Cerilia is going to haunt Milo.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Additional Notes:
The original adventure is set in 1930s Germany, with the players as Nazis and having access to dynamite (which I referred to as "Dwarven Fire") and machine guns (crossbows). The diamond mine is located in Africa and the "goblins" are actually native Africans. Each soldier and officer was decked out in armor and carried a sword, a dagger and a shield; but only the PCs knew how to use the 'Dwarven Fire' which I treated just like dynamite that turns into napalm when it explodes.
In the character background for Lt. Tannor Hemut I revealed that the secret of 'Dwarven Fire' had been tortured out of captive dwarves back in Boeruine, and the location of the temple had been revealed in these same dwarven interrogations.
The original adventure has six pre-written characters, so I took background elements from two characters and combined them to make Soren a spy with a bit more of a backstory, and the extra sixth character I simply thought of as Faezil, the sick Lieutenant who is absent throughout the scenario.
My players have never met anybody from the nation of Boeruine, and with this adventure I have begun to set them up as future villains for the campaign. The players actually did a good job of being ruthless bastards without realizing the Nazi connection as well.

As an additional note, the original adventure is about the Yellow Sign, a symbol of Hastur from the Cthulhu mythos. In the Birthright setting there are a few references to how halflings are not from Cerilia but originally lived in the Shadow Realm, and there are only ever two references in the campaign books to a terrifying being who drove them from the Shadow Realm called the Cold Rider.
The main entry in the Birthright rulebook only contains one paragraph and is written in very vague terms. It says the halflings fled from "a terrible danger" that common folk call the Cold Rider, and in other regions he is called the Night Walker or the Darkling. The paragraph ends with "the borders between the Shadow World and Cerilia have grown weaker in recent years, and strange things have been happening in the frontier lands..."
In earlier games I never gave the Cold Rider much thought, the references are too vague to make something substantial out of it, but my experiences playing Deadlands with Everett gave me a huge appreciation at adapting Cthulhu-esque monsters and situations to a game in order to make it more terrifying. In my mind the Cold Rider is very much an ancient, alien entity who would normally not pay attention to mortals, but has found that pain, especially the pain of the cold, gives him delicious morsels of psychic energy to feed off of. And like the Man in Black of the original scenario, simply knowing he exists gives him an opportunity to feast upon your pain.
In previous sessions the players ventured close to the Five Peaks, and they met a few insane people who were living around there. They didn't give it much thought at the time, but now I may have to hammer home that the Cold Rider is in those mountains, and anybody who goes there is subject to his will.

Finally, I always describe my world to my players as "the middle ages just before the Renaissance hits" and in discussions about the governments, religions and society in general I always remind them that "Renaissance" for a fantasy world means that magic hasn't become common yet, nobody can read and people are struggling just to maintain the status quo of survival. Magicians and wizards are looked at suspiciously. There is only one college of sorcery in all of the land and it's located in the Imperial City and is more of a political font than an actual place of study.
Nobody is really educated. Nobody really knows... anything. Instead of learning occult lore and arcane knowledge, characters have a Folklore skill, which can be unreliable at worst and vaguely helpful at the best of times.
In this time, knowledge is being increased, productivity is taking hold, the humans are spreading out, and wars are brewing. A perfect time for dropping the equivalent of an elder god who feeds on pain and extinguishes warmth into a collection of countries all rattling the lids of their boiling pots.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Birthright conversion

This is a collection of my homebrewed rules for using the Birthright setting with World of Darkness rules. I had to make a lot of adjustments.

1) The first thing I looked at were the skills.
Skills like Computer had to be removed and skills like Investigation felt out of place, but all of the skills should feel like they fit into the setting of medieval fantasy. I went through old World of Darkness books for the alternate settings, Dark Ages Vampire, Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade, Victorian Vampire, and even the World War One Wraith rulebook, looking for skills that I could adapt into the rules. Ultimately I ended up replacing skills with ones that conformed to the setting, as well as rename and limit the scope of some skills.
Investigation was replaced with Enigmas, a catchall skill for "deciphering languages," interpreting clues and solving puzzles.
Folklore replaced Occult, so knowledge of the arcane arts and mysterious monsters was denigrated down to a literal skill about storytelling.
I wanted to limit the scope of Medicine dramatically, so Computer was removed and replaced with Herbalism, a skill that could also capture poison-making abilities as well.
The physical skills were pretty simple, Firearms was easy to replace with Archery, and Drive had a decent enough replacement with Ride.
I didn't feel I needed to replace any of the social skills, but in keeping with the themes of nobility in the medieval era and also dealing with the alien cultures of elves and dwarves I replaced Socialize with Etiquette.

2) The second thing I fixated on were races.
In the Birthright setting, humans are divided into five distinct ethnicities with differing bonuses and penalties. I knew I wanted to have Bloodlines do weird and nifty things with dice rolling mechanics and I wanted racial bonuses to augment or play off of these, so mechanically I differentiated the five variations of Cerilian humans by giving each a 9-again quality with a different attribute and skill.
Anuireans: Resolve and Etiquette
Brecht: Dexterity and Persuasion
Khinasi: Intelligence and Herbalism
Rjurik: Wits and Survival
Vos: Stamina and Animal Ken

This left the Sidhelien (elves), the Karamhul (dwarves) and the Halflings (halflings). :-P
All of which were problems, because the Birthright setting harkens to Tolkien's ideas of immortal and hostile elves, dwarves dscended from magical elemental beings and halflings with special powers derived from their mystic homeland. I decided to simplify it and each of these races would cost Merit dots during character creation, and so I wrote out each races' abilities and determined what it might cost in Merit dots if I simply allowed players to purchase equivalent magical powers during character creation. Then I reduced the prices a little bit based on drawbacks that each collection of powers might come with. Then they were still too much, so I reduced the prices in half.

the Karamhul (••••)
• size 4
• darkvision, 90 feet
• for purposes of lifting or moving objects, Strength receives a +4 bonus, and dwarves can carry an extra 50 pounds without being encumbered; additionally, whenever a Willpower point is spent on a roll involving Strength, the player can add 5 dice instead of the usual 3
• all Physical rolls receive the 9-again quality
• whenever a dwarf is struck by a blunt object (e.g., rock, mace, etc.) the roll is reduced by 2 successes

the Sidhelien (••••)
• size 5
• elves can never use Divine magic
• elves can see in starlight or moonlight as if it were a bright summer's day
• while not completely immune to disease elves receive a +4 bonus in any rolls made to resist the effects of illness, intoxication or disease
• all Social rolls receive the 9-again quality
• immortal (elves never age once they mature)
• elves have no need to sleep, and as such are immune to any magic that would cause them to sleep, but they must rest quietly for six hours a day or else they become exhausted and suffer Fatigue

the Halflings (•••)
• size 3 and cannot take the Giant merit
• halflings can never have Bloodlines or use Divine magic
• all Resistance rolls receive the 9-again quality
• Shadow Vision, by concentrating for one turn (losing Defense and Speed) and rolling Wits + Composure a halfling can see the influence of Shadow, the presence of undead, as well as determine the Strength of the local Gauntlet.
• Shadow Walk, by concentrating for one turn (losing Defense and Speed) and rolling Wits + Composure a halfling can enter the barrier between the Physical World and the Shadow World to travel great distances in a short period of time. The halfling can bring a number of people along with him equal to his total Willpower, but all must be touching the halfling. In this region, the halfling can move at a rate of roughly 50 miles an hour. Because of the blurring of reality between the Shadow World and the Physical World, nobody can make out details of the terrain or areas passed over during transit, nor can the halfling predict perfectly where travel will end. Added to this difficulty is the fact that using the ability too often will attract creatures from the Shadow World to the halfling, making them loathe to use it except in the direst of emergencies.

3) The next thing on my list was Morality.
It had to go. I never liked alignment in D&D, and Morality always seemed like it was just begging to be debated about. In fact, many of my game sessions had sparked debates about morality when a player would kill somebody and I would have them roll for degeneration. Arguments like "but it was self-defense" or "but that was an accident" would not sway me. The mechanical effect of Morality is to have the character begin suffering mental illnesses as it drops, and I felt that causing another person's death was a psychological trauma regardless of the person's intentions. As I frequently ended the debates with "the system doesn't care what you intend, it only measures your actions - and you killed that guy!"
I immediately changed the name and since the corrupting influence of Azrai was still felt upon the world in his Bloodline, since the Shadow World was hinted at being a place tormented by the disturbed spirits of the dead, and since I was very consciously excluding the equivalents of paladins, rangers and druids within the setting, I chose the word Purity.
I kept the table of "sins" from Morality, but I've also added quite a few additional "sins" that are all related to abuses of Bloodlines and magic within the setting. Knowingly entering a province that is tainted with an Awnsheghlien is a sin. Trying to kill somebody for their Bloodline is one step worse than just killing somebody, and trying to take somebody's Bloodline, through killing them or through Investiture, when their Bloodline is of Azrai's lineage is a step worse than that.
The distinction I try to make with my list of "sins" is that the character's knowledge of what they are doing is immaterial. If the character is knowingly embracing evil, by making deals with Shadow creatures or going after Azrai's powers, then there are sins for that; but most of the sins could be activated without the character, or even the player, ever knowing that they're degenerating.
As a result, I've started using Purity as a mechanic for Divine powers as well as a factor for resisting the influence of Shadow creatures.


no supernatural archtypes, just spells
The way I've translated wizard and cleric magic into World of Darkness has changed several times, for both types of magic. At first, I treated both as power stats, called Arcane and Divine, each of which could be purchased during character creation for five Merit dots, neither of which could exceed five dots, and just ruled that individual spells could be purchased for each. But this didn't convey the level of mystery, or strength, that I wanted magic to have. Let's break each down:

4) Arcane
I wanted magic to be relatively weak, but I didn't want to have to do a lot of work to convey this weakness. Arcane is rated from 1 to 5 dots. Purchasing it at character creation gives the character only one dot. Arcane has the following game effects:
• Players roll an Attribute + Arcane when casting spells. Arcane is the "raw ability" of this formula. Magicians with a high Arcane rating are simply more proficient spellcasters. (This would keep dice pools low and thus magicians would not be lobbing Fireballs with glee.)
• The higher a magician's Arcane, the more quickly he can cast elaborate or powerful spells. For every dot of Arcane a magician has, he can cast that many "dots" worth of a spell in a single round. Thus, a magician with Arcane of 2 could cast a 2 dot spell in one round, but a 3 or 4 dot spell would take two rounds, and 5 dot spells would take 3 rounds. In other words, Arcane governs how many points of Mana a player can spend in a single turna and his Arcane rating is equal to the number of Mana he can spend in a single turn. (I haven't created any abilities or powers that can activate with the expenditure of a Mana, but I felt including this rule would put a limiting factor on anything like that I might create in the future.)
• A Magician may have a spell active, either through concentration or a timed duration, for each dot in Arcane he possesses. Attempting to cast additional spells beyond this results in penalties to the spellcasting dice pool of -2 dice per additional spell.

I didn't want Arcane to be a conventional power stat, but I did want it to have a "battery" stat that was used to power it and I didn't want to use Willpower for that - I was always planning on tying Willpower to Divine magic. So Mana became a 20 box stat below Arcane, spells had a one Mane per dot of the spell cost and I created special rules for gathering it.
I didn't put a "cap" on the amount of Mana a magician can store. There are 20 boxes on the character sheet and any magician, regardless of Arcane rating, can store the full amount. Trying to store more than 20 Mana is simply impossible.
The notes that I gave players about Mana said it could do the following:
• Spellcasting: Every spell costs a point of Mana to cast per dot of the spell's rating.
• Power: Some magical items require Mana to be spent in order to use them.
• Restoration: Magicians can infuse Mana into their physical Patterns to heal wounds. The cost is one Mana points per bashing or two Mana points per lethal wound. This is an instant action, not reflexive. Those magicians unable to spend more than two Mana per turn can take as many consecutive turns performing this action as they need, until they’ve spent the points. This is a reverse effect to Scourging (see below).
And the notes I handed out which included rules for collecting and regaining Mana were practically lifted from the Mage rulebook:
• Collecting: Wizards can perform a ritual at a Source and gain Mana points. Doing so requires an hour of uninterrupted ceremony and an Arcane + Composure roll. Each success provides one Mana and a Wizard cannot gain more Mana per day, however, than the Source's rating. (There is a difference between magicians and Wizards, more on this later.)
• Scourging: Magicians can scourge their own bodies to free up Mana, electing to either degrade one of their Physical Attributes by one dot in return for three Mana points, or instead scourge his Health. This is a literal reverse effect to Restoration (see above).
• Blood Sacrifice: Magicians don’t like to talk about it, but there is an unsavory practice that can also yield up Mana to a magician: the blood sacrifice of a living creature. And including this rule, though not part of the original Birthright setting, allowed me to add that magicians and Wizards were rare people who are always looked upon suspiciously.

Individual spells were basically taken straight out of the Mage: The Awakening rulebook with very little modification at first. In one session I realized this wasn't going to work, so I decided to tweak spells that I converted into the system so they had a set effect. At first I had multiple levels of effects, but than I realized I had fallen into the trap of uber-customization that I wanted to avoid.
I changed Arcane spells one last time, and now they have one effect, which is triggered with one success on a roll. Exceptional successes do not add to the effects, but can help save Mana for higher-level spells.
At the beginning of the campaign I had only included four spells as part of a beginning magician's repertoire: Alarm, Detect Magic, Mage Armor, and Magic Missile. All were variations of spells from Mage: the Awakening books, but all were listed as one-dot spells - in order to maintain the feel of the corresponding 1st-level AD&D spells more than for any other justification or sense of balance.
During the course of the game the lone magician in the gaming group has also learned Spectral Hand and Find Familiar (also one dot spells), and is in the process of learning Invisibility (a 2-dot spell).

5) Divine
Clerics and Divine magic have undergone the most changes since I first started. All I can say is that the players who chose to play a magician and a cleric have both been very patient.
At first I thought I would treat Divine similarly to Arcane, give it a battery stat and just dole out spells occasionally, but this felt a bit lazy and I didn't want to simply have two separate lists of powers with very little variation. However, the Divine trait has stayed fairly consistent throughout my revisions and, like Arcane, it cannot exceed five dots and spells cast with Divine only add an Attribute to the dice pool.
The way that is currently works is that any character with Divine will have basic healing, protection, undead turning, and magic dispelling abilities - but then each dot in Divine will unlock deity-specific abilities. I decided that all clerics should have basic powers, nine of which are keyed to a specific Attribute, most of them require the expenditure of a Willpower point to use and then the tenth requires the sacrifice of a Willpower dot to activate. And all ten of these powers would be the basic powers that all clerics in a regular D&D game might have.
Most of these powers take inspiration from abilities in the Hunter books, but the complete list is:
+ Intelligence = Cure Wounds: (though I might change this to Dexterity), costs Willpower, an extended action that requires a certain number of successes to remove wounds, the number of rolls for the action can't exceed Purity
+ Wits = no power yet
+ Resolve = Dispel Magic, costs Willpower
+ Strength = no power yet
+ Dexterity = Bless Weapon, costs Willpower and makes a weapon temporarily magical (though I might switch the Attribute associated with this power with Cure Wounds)
+ Stamina = Sanctuary, costs Willpower but basically turns Purity into a stat that attackers have to mentally overcome in order to attack the cleric
+ Presence = classic Turn Undead ability, costs Willpower, number of undead affected is determined by Purity (though I might change this since 'evil' priests should probably have a Command Undead ability)
+ Manipulation = Command, costs Willpower and is a contested action vs target
+ Composure = Divine Blessing: allows the cleric to reflexively distribute Willpower points to others when activating his Virtue

Since Divine is also keyed to a particular deity, I had to come up with powers for each dot that a character might have in Divine. But since I've only used clerics from three deities so far, I haven't fleshed these out completely.
Cuiraecen
Clerics can regain 1 point of Willpower when they first see a storm brewing
• receives bonus dice to resist exhaustion, starvation and exposure; Divine also acts as armor for magical attacks using cold or lightning
•• Divination, costs Willpower and requires an extended roll, acts pretty much just like it's AD&D counterpart
••• Call Lightning, costs Willpower and requires a roll, and does a set amount of damage - that can kill most men (anyone with Stamina of 2 and Size 5 would have all of the Health boxes filled with lethal damage)
Haelyn
Clerics regain 1 point of Willpower when they witness a crime
• receives bonus dice to resist any attempts - mundane or magical - to deceive, fool or scare them; as well as magical compulsion or controlling effects
•• Judgment, costs Willpower, allows the cleric to determine if somebody is lying or if they are guilty of an accused crime
Ruornil
Clerics regain 1 point of Willpower when they look at the full moon
• receive bonus dice to resist Blooded abilities - these are the only clerics who get a bonus against Bloodlines

And since Divine is obviously still a work in progress, that's all I have at the moment. My players have been very patient with my revisions, but I'm constantly striving to simplify the rules while at the same time trying to imbue the same feelings of playing an old school AD&D game.

6) Bloodlines
In the original Birthright setting, Bloodlines are divided into derivations of power that simulate the powers of the old/dead gods. I changed the name to Lineage to better reflect how the Bloodline indicates the character is a direct descendant of one of the survivors from the battle of Mount Deismaar - the historical event where the old gods died, the new gods were created and the Bloodlines were spread out.
Just like Arcane and Divine, I decided that Bloodline would only have five dots at the most. The dots of a Bloodline are referred to as the Bloodline's strength.
A Weak Bloodline (•) is what a scion with little or no manifestations of the blood has. Such trace Bloodlines tend to evaporate completely after a generation or two unless they are returned to prominence through the actions of exceptional characters.
A Minor Bloodline (••)is usually descended from less or non-famous figures that were present at Deismaar. Thousands of common foot soldiers and camp followers survived the battle to perpetuate minor Bloodlines. Most scions have a Minor Bloodline, and thus it is the most common type of Blooded character.
Major Bloodlines (•••) represent lines descended from the most prominent heroes and leaders at Deismaar and those who survived the first decades of usurpation. Almost all of the Major Bloodlines are famous throughout Cerilia, and the deeds, feuds, and abilities of their heirs are the stuff of bard’s tales and legends.
Great Bloodlines (••••) are rare; less than one scion in a hundred has a Great Bloodline. Only the greatest heroes of Deismaar were worthy of Bloodlines of such strength and, even then, only if they happened to be in close proximity to one of the gods when they perished. Scions of Great Bloodlines often have exceptionally powerful manifestations.
Furthermore, regents with Major (or Great) Bloodlines are sustained by their connection to their domain. Such regents receive bonus Health boxes determined by the size and prosperity of their realm.

True Bloodlines (•••••) are almost always unique and unheard of. Only the greatest heroes of Deismaar, those who were both physically and philosophically closest to the expiring gods, were granted True Bloodlines. Only these surviving heroes or their direct heirs through Bloodline investiture have True Bloodlines. There are believed to be less than a dozen True Bloodlines in existence throughout Cerilia.

All Bloodlines, including Tainted Bloodlines (a Bloodline trait with zero dots), have certain shared abilities:
Divine Aura: An intangible mantle of power and nobility surrounds some blooded characters, commanding respect from all they meet. Penalties to social rolls are always reduced by the number of dots in the scion’s Bloodline. Additionally, if a scion spends a Willpower point, he can project his Bloodline outward into a powerful aura which can hypnotize and enthrall the listeners, allowing him to add his Bloodline dots as bonus dice to social rolls for the scene.
Heightened Attribute: The scion receives the 9-again rule for rolls made with one Attribute associated with their Lineage; if the character already receives a 9-again quality with an Attribute for some reason then the Bloodline heightens the Attribute to receive the 8-again quality.
Heightened Skill: For every dot they possess in their Bloodline, scions receive a Skill Trick related to their Lineage (Skill Tricks are from the Mirrors sourcebook). For example, a scion with a Bloodline of 3 dots would have three Skill Tricks.
Sense Bloodline: All Blooded characters can sense other Blooded characters. When first looking at another scion, the character reflexively rolls Wits + Composure and adds the dots of the other character's Bloodline to their roll. Especially strong Bloodlines (any with 5 dots) can detect other Bloodlines and be detected by other Bloodlines several miles away.
Bloodmark: Blooded characters with powerful Bloodlines bear a visible, recognizable sign of their special heritage. Depending on the family, it may be an unnatural streak of hair coloring, eyes of brilliant green, or a birthmark. The mark is always physical in nature. When a Bloodline reaches four dots, a Bloodmark begins to show up. If the Bloodline increases to five dots it will become more pronounced and obvious, especially if Blood powers are used frequently.
Scions of the Azrai Lineage *always* bear obvious and often hideous Bloodmarks, but the mark is dramatically different for each character, and it frequently twists their bodies and physical appearance into a horrible mockery of their former selves.
Blooded Magic: Scions who are also Arcane spellcasters or Divine servants can add their dots in Bloodline to rolls when using Arcane or Divine spells. Additionally, a scion's Bloodline dots always adds to rolls to resist Arcane and Divine spells.

Magicians with Bloodlines are called Wizards and receive additional benefits:
• Wizards can increase their Attributes past 5 dots. The potential of the wizard's abilities is increased beyond the mundane, allowing him to bolster his Mental, Physical and Social capabilities to inhuman degrees.
• Wizards are capable of channeling energy from Source holdings, and receive Regency for doing so successfully.
• Wizards can cast powerful Realm magic, a feat that only a Bloodline allows as elves are naturally incapable of wielding that much Arcane power.
Note: Elves can already become Wizards without a Bloodline. Part of my campaign's history is that Arcane magic originally comes from dragons, and millenia ago they taught it to elves - the fact that humans can't wield magic as well as elves without a Bloodline adds to the elven viewpoint of humans being inferior and twisted creatures on the same level as goblins.

Also, I forgot to include this under the Arcane description, magicians take a full round to cast a spell losing both Speed and Defense, while wizards can cast spells as instant actions.

Clerics with Bloodlines also receive additional abilities which are greatly enhanced by controlling Temples.
• Not written up yet, but I do have rules for Investiture

Finally, I haven't written up very many blood powers yet, but I did include these rules:
Blood powers are assigned based on the total number of dots in Bloodline strength a character possesses. Every time a Bloodline increases, new powers are acquired or upgraded. When a scion increases their Bloodline they can acquire a number of dots worth of powers equal to their new level of Bloodline strength. Thus, a scion with a Bloodline of (•) who increases his Bloodline to (••) can acquire either a single two-dot power or two one-dot powers. What powers are available depend entirely on the character's Lineage.

I have a handful of one-dot powers written up, in case one of my players increases their Tainted Bloodline during the course of the game. An example of one would be
Toughness (•)
Lineage:
Any
Effect: For every dot in a Bloodline that a character possesses, they receive a bonus Health box.

7) some house rules for combat
there are a few combat hacks from the Armoury books that I use consistently:
Bleeding Out - take 3+ lethal damage from an edged weapon and lose 1 bashing every round until the bleeding is stopped
Bone Breaking - inflict a broken leg, arm or concussion if inflicting 5+ bashing with a blunt weapon
Hidden Health - I secretly track damage levels for every PC, describing their injuries without the use of numbers
Slower Healing - natural healing rates take four times as long

All of this makes combat something that has lasting effects. When the characters fight somebody, they're feeling the effects of it for days or weeks in game time. Thus, combat becomes something to avoid. This has actually helped heighten dramatic tension, I've seen player panic when outnumbered and start looking for places to flee.
I am also blessed with players who trust me as a GM, and I have a personal rule that I never kill a character outright. If somebody takes enough damage in a single hit, I give them a roll to avoid "passing out" and if they succeed the roll I narrate the effects of shock, depending on the scenario it could mean their skin crawls and a great emptiness fills their belly as they bleed from the last injury inflicted, or perhaps the feeling of a great thirst coupled with drowsiness overcomes their senses while their skin turns pale after being hit over the head with a club.
In any event, players always get a warning that they are about to die, and have the choice to run or stay and fight. Nobody has died yet, but they've come close several times.

8) Merits
I own every single World of Darkness book, and when Mirrors was first released their seemed to be heralded with a note of finality to the series of books. At that time I went through every single book, copying and writing and compiling my own text file that included every single Merit. I divided them into Mental, Physical, Social, Fighting Style, and Supernatural files, so I would have a complete listing of everything published, easy to find and easy to reference. (The lack of an index in WOD books is a constant cursing point for me.)
When I began work on this campaign I obviously had to exclude many of the more modern merits, so I went through those files and compiled my own custom list of which Merits would be available for characters, tweaking some of them slightly to fit within the setting. The final list of Merits I gave to my players included the following information (some dot costs were altered)

Mental: Common Sense (••••), Danger Sense (••), Diligent Study (••), Eidetic Memory (••), Holistic Awareness (•••), Language (•), Meditative Mind (•), Well-Traveled (•)

Physical: Ambidextrous (•••), Armored Fighting (•• or ••••), Athletics Dodge (•), Brawling Dodge (•), Direction Sense (•), Disarm (••), Fast Reflexes (• or ••), Fighting Finesse (••), Fleet of Foot (• to •••), Giant (••••), Iron Stamina (• to •••), Iron Stomach (••), Natural Immunity (•), Outdoorsman (••), Quick Healer (••••), Strong Back (•), Strong Lungs (•••), Strong Stomach (•), Student of the Blade (•), Toxin Resistance (••), Weaponry Dodge (•)

Social: Allies (• to •••••), Bureaucratic Navigator (••), Decorated (• to ••), Fame (• to •••), Inspiring (••••), Status (• to •••••), Striking Looks (•• or ••••)

Fighting Style:
Anuirean Spear-Fighting (originally Sojutsu/Jukendo from Armory Reloaded),
Archery,
Brecht Sword-Fighting (originally Fencing from Armory),
Grappling (from Armory Reloaded),
Improvised Weaponry (from Midnight Roads),
Khinasi Sword-Fighting (originally Kendo from Armory),
Rjurik Sword-Fighting (originally Langschwert from Armory Reloaded),
Staff Fighting,
Sword and Shield (tweaked slightly because Shields don't give a -1 attack penalty anymore),
Vosgaard Knife Fighting (originally Spetsnaz Knife Fighting)

Supernatural: almost all of these have been tweaked for the setting
Analyst (•) from Reliquary, Cursed Item (• to •••••), Difficult to Ride (••••), Shadow Aura (•••)
I also included Mana Blood (••) - re-written from a merit in Book of Spirits, it essentially makes a character bleed Mana whenever they are injured
Source-Drinker (•••) - also re-written from a merit in Book of Spirits, it allows a character to steal Mana from a Source and possibly channel it into a magic item or give it to magician

Merits that I significantly altered, or added, to the game include:
Literacy (•)
Nobody starts with literacy, characters can speak their native tongue but are not formally taught to read unless they pay for it.

Follower (• to •••••)
Prerequisite: Bloodline •, Arcane •, Divine •, Presence •••, or Status •••+
The character receives a follower who follows their commands and is loyal to them. This is just a tweaking of the Retainer merit, but I also allowed players to make their characters Followers. As long as they obey the dictates of the Follower merit, they receive a bonus of three Merit dots during character creation.

Officer of the Regent (• to ••••)
This is essentially just a tweaking of the Sworn Officer merit from Tales From The 13th Precinct. I turned it into the 'qualifying' merit for a regent's Lieutenant.

Resources (• to •••••)
I tweaked this as well. It doesn't represent wealth that will continue to come in, but it's a flat one-time bonus of wealth during character creation.

The following merits are exactly what I wrote for my players-
Arcane Spellcaster (•••••)
Effect:
Your character receives Arcane (•) and is capable of casting spells, using and storing Mana. Spells must be purchased separately and individually, and usually requires a Mentor or access to the Royal College of Sorcery.
Note: Arcane spellcasters begin play with the Alarm (•), Detect Magic (•), Mage Armor (•) and Magic Missile (•) spells for free, but purchasing this merit after character creation does not include this benefit.

Divine Spellcaster (•••••)
Effect:
Your character receives Divine (•) and is capable of casting spells from their chosen deity's Spheres, but spells from those Spheres must still be purchased separately.
Note: Divine spellcasters begin play with their deity's primary Sphere (•) spell for free, as well as Prayer at (•), but purchasing this merit after character creation does not include these benefits.
(This has obviously changed since my first draft of rule-writing, but this is what I originally wrote, thinking that each Divine sellcaster would select Spheres of influence much like 2nd edition AD&D clerics, and similar to Reckoning-era Hunters.)

Mysterious Fortune (••)
Effect:
Your character has some sort of event in his background, or an item that he carries, which is both beneficial and gets him into trouble. The specific effect and details are random and determined by the GM.
Note: This Merit can only be selected during character creation!
Drawback: The Mysterious Fortune is both beneficial and a hindrance.

Tainted Bloodline (••)
Prerequisites:
no Bloodline
Effect: Your character has a Bloodline that has been severely diluted over the centuries. This is due to having an ancestor of one of the Bloodlines whose line has weakened to the point of almost non-existence; but the residual quality of being a blooded descendant remains.
You must choose a Lineage for your character, and she gains the ability to sense other blooded characters as well as the Heightened Attribute ability of her associated Lineage. Other blooded characters can sense her as a fellow scion, despite the fact that she has no Bloodline strength or powers. Additionally, your character could potentially rule a domain successfully or kill a fellow scion to gather strength for herself thereby "giving" herself a Bloodline of (•).
Drawback: Scions will think she is blooded, so they may consider her both a target and a potential rival for their own power. In short, the character becomes a target to those who don't want to barter with her or who see her as a threat.

9) character creation
What I wrote for my players was literally this:

1. Choose background. First, create your character’s concept. To help get a handle on your character’s identity and motivations, come up with a short, two- or three-word description of him/her. This usually, but not always, includes some idea of a career: “patriotic soldier,” “stoic bartender,” “lost beggar,” “petulant noble,” “angry young carpenter.”

2. Second, choose your character’s faction. His faction is both his strength and his curse. Faction can be tied to a character’s home country, or it can be an independent body, like a church or a guild union.

3. Select Attributes, your character’s innate capabilities: Your character begins with a number of dots that she can apply to her Attributes, a total of 14 dots; and these can be distributed in any fashion.

4. Select Skills, your character’s learned capabilities: Like Attributes, your character begins with a number of dots which can be distributed in any way desired, a total of 21 dots; and these can be distributed in any fashion.

5. Select Skill Specialties, your character’s focused areas of expertise: Take five Skill Specialties of your choice. You can assign each how you like, whether each to a separate Skill or all five to a single Skill. There is no limit to how many Specialties can be assigned to a single Skill.

6. Determine advantages, traits derived from your character’s Attributes: Defense (the lowest of Dexterity or Wits), Health (Stamina + Size), Initiative (Dexterity + Composure), Purity (7 for starting characters), Size (5 for most humans), Speed (Strength + Dexterity +5), Willpower (Resolve + Composure), and Virtue/Vice (choose one of each).

7. Select Merits, representing character enhancements and background elements: Spend 12 dots on Merits. You must determine your race or purchase a Racial Merit before selecting any other Merits.

8. Bonus points: These are used to round out a character or add depth to already selected abilities. You have 13 bonus points, and may spend them on any Attributes, Skills, Merits or Traits.
Bloodline, Arcane, Divine = 6 points per dot
Attributes = 4 points per dot
Skills, Spells = 3 points per dot
Purity (starts at 7) = 3 points per dot, or lower Purity for +3 bonus points (to minimum of 5)
Merits = 2 points per dot
Skill Specialties = 1 per point

9. Purchase starting equipment: Characters begin play with 15 gold pieces worth of equipment, unless this has been modified through Merits.

...and I also don't make my players pay double for the 5th dot in any category.

10) character sheet
With the help of MrGone, who was kind enough to make and host a Birthright character sheet the first time I tried to do this gaming experiment, I modified his design to fit with many of my changes and house rules, and also to make the sheet easier to read for my players - most of whom were not as familiar with World of Darkness rules as I am.

click for bigger

I don't really know what else to write at this point. Most of the time I simply take things from the rulebooks and tweak them slightly.

the Races of Cerilia

During character creation, some races cost Merit dots.

Karamhul (••••)
Dwarves lived in the mountains of Cerilia long before humans came to the land. Over the years, the dwarven holds have chosen a defensive strategy, fortifying their approaches and retreating to their cities under the mountains whenever threatened. Dwarves have a fierce hatred of orogs as a result of uncounted wars fought under the earth.

The typical dwarf stands about 4 to 4-1/2 feet in height, with an exceptionally stocky build and thick, sturdy bones. Dwarves are creatures who derive from stone - they are true children of the mountains - and their bodies are twice as dense as other creatures. As a result, dwarves weigh as much as 250 to 300 pounds despite their size.

A dwarf's skin is gray, stony, and cold to the touch. All dwarves have eyes that are dark as jet, and their hair and beards are black or dark gray and normally cropped short.

With regard to other races, dwarves usually adhere to a friendly neutrality and are on good terms with most other races, including the elves. They're masterful traders and craftsmen, and dwarven caravans roam from Anuire to Vos laden with their goods. Dwarven arms and armor are the best in Cerilia; it's not uncommon to see dwarves selling their services as mercenaries.

• size 4

• darkvision, 90 feet

• for purposes of lifting or moving objects, Strength receives a +4 bonus, and dwarves can carry an extra 50 pounds without being encumbered; additionally, whenever a Willpower point is spent on a roll involving Strength, the player can add 2 extra dice

ALL Physical rolls receive the 9-again quality

• whenever a dwarf is struck by a blunt object (e.g., rock, mace, etc.) the roll is reduced by 2 successes



Elves (••••)

Cerilian elves call themselves the Sidhelien (SHEE-lin). The Sidhelien hold court in deep, mist-wreathed vales in the darkest heart of the ancient Cerilian forests. A graceful but reclusive race, they are suspicious of humankind. Early in Cerilia's history the elves contested human settlement of Cerilia's vast forests, and a strong current of ill will towards the human nations still runs strong in the elven woods.

Elves stand as tall as humans, but they're far more slender and graceful. Most average between 5-1/2 and 6 feet in height, but weigh only 120 to 140 pounds. They are pale, with fair skin and dark hair, and their features are exquisitely fine. Elves possess an unearthly beauty, and their perfect voices can hold a mortal spellbound. Unfortunately, elves are too conscious of their superiority and treat others with coldness or condescension.

Cerilian elves are creatures of faerie and starlight, gifted with immortality and powers of mind and body beyond those of humankind. They're neither a force for good nor a force for evil; an elven wood can be deadly perilous for human travelers. The elven heart is unfathomable to mortals; they're moved to wild delight, dark melancholy, or burning rage with the only the slightest of causes. More than anything else, elves are unpredictable, doing what pleases them from one moment to the next.

• size 5 and cannot take the Divine Spellcaster merit

• elves can see in starlight or moonlight as if it were a bright summer's day

• while not completely immune to disease elves receive a +4 bonus in any rolls made to resist the effects of illness, intoxication or disease

ALL Social rolls receive the 9-again quality

• immortal (elves never age once they mature)

• elves have no need to sleep, and as such are immune to any magic that would cause them to sleep, but they must rest quietly for six hours a day or else they become exhausted



Halflings (•••)

The halflings aren't a numerous people, but they can be found almost anywhere humans live. Only a handful of humans know the secret of the halflings' origins: that they once dwelled in the Shadow World, a realm of faerie enchantment that existed parallel to Cerilia. That realm was poisoned and corrupted by the rise of the Shadow Lords, and they fled to the daylight world to escape the dark powers of those Lords. In the early years of the Anuirean Empire, the halflings left their homes one family at a time, trickling into the human lands.

Living in the shadow of their larger neighbors, halflings don't see the sense in a government larger than a small village or extended family, and are happy to count themselves citizens of whatever human land surrounds them. It's not unusual to find a handful of halfling farmers near a human village, or a neighborhood of halfling craftsmen in a larger town.

Halflings usually adopt the language, culture, and customs of the Big Folk around them, while keeping a few aspects of their own culture intact. They'll never take up arms against each other; halflings feel free to use weapons in the defense of their homes or families, but consider fisticuffs the only acceptable form of violence against other halflings.

Cerilian halflings stand about 3-1/2 feet tall and resemble small humans. They tend to be slightly stocky, and are fond of creature comforts.

• size 3 and cannot take the Giant merit

• halflings can never have Bloodlines or use Divine magic

ALL Resisted rolls receive the 9-again quality

• Shadow Vision, by concentrating for one turn (losing Defense and Speed) and rolling Wits + Composure a halfling can see the influence of Shadow, the presence of undead, as well as determine the Strength of the local Gauntlet.

• Shadow Walk, by concentrating for one turn (losing Defense and Speed) and rolling Wits + Composure a halfling can enter the barrier between the Physical World and the Shadow World to travel great distances in a short period of time. The halfling can bring a number of people along with him equal to his total Willpower, but all must be touching the halfling. In this region, the halfling can move at a rate of roughly 50 miles an hour. Because of the blurring of reality between the Shadow World and the Physical World, nobody can make out details of the terrain or areas passed over during transit, nor can the halfling predict perfectly where travel will end. Added to this difficulty is the fact that using the ability too often will attract creatures from the Shadow World to the halfling, making them loathe to use it except in the direst of emergencies.




Humans (-)

Humans are the most populous race in Cerilia, inhabiting every part of the continent. There are five human nationalities or cultures: the Anuireans, the Basarji, the Brechtur, the Rjurik, and the Vos. All humans start as Size 5.



Anuireans (an-WEER-ee-ans) are native to the southwestern portion of Cerilia. The ancient Anuireans were a fair-skinned, red-haired people, but over centuries of extensive contact with other cultures Anuireans have lost any defining physical characteristics.

Anuirean society is semi-feudal, founded on a class of free farmers and craftsmen. Regents are usually titled nobles. Anuireans respect nobility, and look to their leaders to protect them from the barbarians and savages who surround the states of the old empire. Commoners strongly identify with "their" lords, and the dealings and alliances of the noble families is a topic of constant discussion throughout Anuirean lands.

• receive the 9-again quality for Resolve and Etiquette rolls



The Brechtur (BREK-tur) folk inhabit north-central Cerilia. They tend to be short and stocky, with dark hair and eyes. Early in their history, they were under the rule of Anuirean governors, and the nobility declined drastically in power and importance. When the Anuirean Empire fell and the Brechtur gained independence, the guilds and merchants came into power.

The Brechtur believe in free enterprise, and Brecht society revolves around wealth. The nobility is weak in Brechtur, and several states have declared themselves republics. The Brechtur have a fierce love of independence and a tradition of self-reliance; they don't wait for their lordlings or rulers to solve problems for them. Commerce and trade are expressions of this belief, and Brecht commoners owe their first loyalty to guilds and companies.

• receive the 9-again quality for Dexterity and Persuasion rolls



Khinasi (kih-NAH-see) characters are native to the region known as Khinasi. They're descended from the Basarji (bah-SAR-gee) and speak a language known by the same name. The Basarji didn't come to Cerilia with the other human tribes; they colonized the southern shores of Cerilia from lands across the Bair el-Mehire. They are tall and lanky, with aquiline features and dark eyes. They range from a light coffee to a dark brown complexion.

Unlike the other human cultures, the Khinasi have no fear of magic. The study of magic is considered the noblest of callings, and the universities of Khinasi are the finest in Cerilia. Like the Brechtur, common Khinasi are traders and merchants, but a person's decorum, hospitality, and conduct are far more important than gross wealth.

• receive the 9-again quality for Intelligence and Folklore rolls



The Rjurik (RUR-ick) inhabit the taiga and highlands of northwestern Cerilia. They're a tall, broad-shouldered people with blond or red hair and fair complexions. Both men and women wear their hair in long braids. The Rjurik are stubborn individualists who don't swear fealty to anyone besides their own kin; the family is most important part of Rjurik life.

Most Rjurik follow the god Erik, a druidical power, and druids are revered throughout Rjurik society as teachers, leaders, and advisers. Common Rjurik have a deep respect and love for Cerilia's wilds, and carefully avoid over-hunting or clearing virgin forest.

• receive the 9-again quality for Wits and Survival rolls



The Vos (VAHS) are a barbaric race from the cold mountains and forests of northeastern Cerilia. They are tall, thick-boned people with flat features, light eyes, and a sallow hue. Male warriors are fond of shaving their heads and wearing long, drooping mustaches.

The Vos have a rigid code of face and honor that demands blood for even unintentional insults. Their leaders are war-chieftains known as tsarevos, advised by the priests of the grim Vos gods. Almost all Vos men are warriors and hunters--any other profession is considered unmanly. Vos women are greatly limited in their freedom by custom, although a few women have succeeded as warriors or tsarevas.

• receive the 9-again quality for Stamina and Animal Ken rolls