Byland

Wherein we make up a game
Setting and character creation

Sessions the First: Setting and Characters

As is often the case, my regular lay group opted for a collaborative setting creation approach. This time we kept it light, rather than giving it the full-bore Microscope/Dresden Files treatment. We settled on five guiding principles as a group and each player (plus the GM) contributed one or two prominent setting features, NPCs or locations. From this our GM (or any of us, really) could adopt a 5×5 approach to generate adventure ideas. Or so we hoped.

The first five: campaign themes

I’ve been reading Primeval Thule recently, being a kickstarter backer, so we cribbed a few ideas from the worthy folks at Sasquatch Game Studio to get us started:

1. Life is cheap
2. Civilization is ancient and wicked, built on the bones of what came before
3. The wilderness is spectacular, savage and untamed
4. The gods are distant and aloof at best, capricious and terrifying at worst
5. Player Characters are adventurers rather than heroes

The next five: some design parameters

1. Focus on a small(ish) area and grow as required
2. Human culture is the ‘norm’; non-humans are exotic outsiders
3. Governments and powers are local and accessible rather than global and remote
4. A conquering army (ala Alexander) has recently passed through the area, leaving a governor behind
5. For flavor, picture Normans vs. Saxons (though it our case, it’s more like Greeks vs. Celts.)

Finally, some people and places: A few more than five

1. Marius the Bronze, governor of Byland, who rules from Caer Caedthwaite
2. Gregorios the Sheriff, Marius’ lieutenant, who roots out insurrectionists and casts them into the Jailhouse
3. Prince Bowen, deposed nobleman, who lairs in the High Forest and plots his return
4. Sister Brevard, a priestess and rebel, who leads the Rangers of the Grove as they work for Marius’ defeat
5. Grisyn the Mystic, a mad warlock, rumored to be more snake than man, who can see the future and lives alone in the Whispering Caverns
6. Iskandar the Warlord, foreign conqueror and sage who impressed an entire generation of Fenian youth into his service and departed to the east to conquer the world
7. The Forest of Doors, a haunted wood from which few emerge and into which many fled during the conquest
8. The Wizard Red Talon, who milks the undead in the Screaming Catacombs for foul ichors that he transforms into magic elixirs.

With that as a starting point, our story in brief became this:

The region known as Byland was historically home to the Feni, a clannish human culture fond of squabbling among themselves via cattle raids and the occasional blood feud. A few years back, invaders from across the sea arrived in huge warships. Calling themselves the Danaoi, they over-ran the poorly organized Feni as they swept through Byland heading east to further conquests. They left behind a satrap and many troops; occasionally a supply caravan departs to the east and travelers speak of the warlord Iskandar’s further conquest, but no one knows when, or even if, he will return. His governor rules with absolute authority and for all intents and purposes is the King of Byland, Marius the Bronze, first of his name, long may he reign.

Although Iskandar himself is convinced he is destined to conquer the world entire, he has left tremendous chaos in his wake. Marius the Bronze was once a true believer, regarding Iskandar as something of a philosopher-king, but as the years wear on with no word from his liege he is forced to turn his attention more fully to ruling the very fractious and noisome Feni as best he can.

That leaves him with a considerable challenge. He has two groups of rebellious Fenians to handle, an influx of carpetbagging Danaans from across the sea to accommodate, a mandate to supply goods and troops to Iskandar and tribute and taxes to Danaan, and his own conscience to wrestle with, because as it turns out Marius has given a bit more thought to his own legacy than Iskandar has to his.

And finally, the players:

Into this we insert the following:

Cinder, and elven monk and guardian of an ancient secret. He quotes the dictates of Master Po in the face of any uncertainty.
Jolly Cotton, a halfling bard, fire swallow-er, cut-purse and all around good sport.
Erdan, an elven warrior of slight build and eldritch inclination
Morgall, a half-orc barbarian from the north, orphaned by raiders, ignored by his tribe and much loved by the peasantry
Palegius the Wise, a Danaoi rogue with a thirst for secrets Best Left Alone.

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Two elves and a halfling walk into a bar . . .

Around a creaky table at The Foaming Mug

Jolly Cotton and Palegius are brought together by a common contact, Angelus, a Danaan with a reputation as something of a fixer for the Sherrif. He asks them if they would be interested in making a bit of money working for the Watch? If so, he invites them to return on the next night and bring some muscle.

The next night, the party assembles to hear Angelus’ offer. He says that a group of thugs has gotten out of control in the docks in the past months. Muggings have turned into killings, a few victims have escaped but with wild tales. The Watch have no living witnesses, the few survivors of the attacks talk about cloaked figures coming through the walls to assault them. The Watch is willing to pay 200 gold to have the problem solved and any recovered valuables turned over. The thugs are wanted alive or dead.

Erdan suggests trying to lure out the assailants, and so it is decided to use the seemingly harmless (but actually quite deadly) monk Cinder as bait with Jolly Cotton following in his shadow. The rest hide within earshot and see what comes. Cinder walks into a blind alley and is overwhelmed by four attackers who seem to materialize right out of the brick walls of the alley! Luckily for Cinder, his crafty halfling companion has a trick or two in his cuffs and soon Cinder is back in the fight and the attackers wreathed in Faerie Fire. Margoll, Pelagius and Erdan let fly and soon three of the assailants lie dead; Cinder captures the last. They throw him into the town jail, with dire warning to the jailer not to be deceived should the cell appear empty.

Erdan recognizes them as Chel, an ancient race once found in Byland that are said to predate even the elves. They are chameleons — able to blend in perfectly with their surroundings if they but stand still for a few seconds.

The Chel warrior speaks only elvish, and an ancient dialect at that. Referring to Cinder and Erdan as “members of the proud race” he relates that his tribe came to Caedthwaite several weeks ago, stowing away aboard a merchant ship. Since then they have been preying on the “mongrel folk,” gathering in the sewers under the city to replenish their numbers and retake what was once theirs. More disturbingly, he mentions that they hope to rediscover their ancient holy sites and drive off the “mongrels” with divine aid.

The group assumes the failure of the four Chel to return will not go unnoticed long, and decides to press on into Caedthwaite’s sewers in the hopes they can find the remaining members of the tribe. After dispatching a few more of the creatures hiding in a cistern, the party notices a well-hidden entrance to a secret passage. They crawl through a pipe into a disused, ancient chamber, much older than the sewer proper. There they disarm a trap or two and lay an ambush for a group of well-armed Chel playing at dice.

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Once more into the . . . stink.

The party rushes the Chel warriors gathered around a gaming table, but the first attacks only serve to disfigure the table and ruin their card game. Finally Pelagius sinks an arrow into the chest of one Chel and the fight is on in earnest. The adventurers make short work of the trio of warriors but not before they manage to raise an alarm; one of two doors into the room swings open. Morgall is waiting and buries his axe into one of the warriors who rush out. After suffering a grave injury in the lead, the Half-Orc retreats, nursing his wounds in a side passage. Erdan bravely steps into the breech but falls beneath Chel swords. Finally Cinder and Pelagius’ deadly ranged attacks fell the last of the creatures. Cinder tends Erdan’s wounds while the party searches the chamber beyond. In a chest, they find some coins and jewelry, obviously stolen from the townspeople, along with a pair of potions; one Holy Water, the second labeled in an Elven script as a healing potion.

The adventurers retreat, carefully hauling the wounded Erdan back to safety. Palegius brings up the rear and spots a shadowy figure stalking the group. When he raises his bow to threaten it, the figure hisses at him.“Flee while you can, murderers. I will find you once my remaining kin are safely away from this hole. Sleep well until then.” “Bring friends, if you have any left.” is the cocksure rogue’s reply.

The party return to the Sheriff’s office to discover the previously captured Chel encased in a gibbet. They return the stolen loot to the thanks of Nikieus, who arranges for clerics to attend to the wounded and unconscious. After agreeing to re-explore the catacombs and find the remaining Chel, they retreat to a local inn to rest.

Angelus pays a visit to Jolly and Pelagius, laying out the history of the former Thieve’s Guild of Caedthwaite. Angelus claims that somewhere in the ancient ruins in the sewer is the sealed tomb of dozens of thieves who so angered the ancient King Abraxas that he had them sealed – along with the gains of their thieving – in their underground hall. Sealed in to starve – or be eaten, as the mad king deposited barrels full of hungry rats as well.

Returning to the sewer the next day, the party carefully explores the rest of the catacombs and finds them deserted. Pelagius discovers and disarms several traps, identical to the one in the entrance hall. The Chel stripped the place of treasure while escaping, leaving only a strange tabard depicting an esoteric scene. A giant eye, perhaps a comet, streaks across the sky above a great mountain range. On the side of the largest mountain, which is encircled by a corona, five circles of stone are depicted. Erdan recognizes the scene as a known phenomenon in these parts, due to reoccur in a few weeks. It is a great omen to Elves and Orcs of the region.

Re-exploring the treasure room reveals a carefully concealed passage under the treasure chest. The party unseal the passage, opening it for the first time in decades, and descend into darkness.

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How not to store your perishible goods
Or, anything that sounds too good to be true . . .

Beneath the chest a vertical shaft dropped into inky blackness. The group descended carefully, with Pelagius examining the former thieve’s guild corridors for any surviving countermeasures designed to prevent the burglars from being burgled themselves.

The first chamber discovered was apparently used for storage, but presently was the home of an emaciated and feral ghoul, which leapt from the darkness and nearly overcame Jolly before being dispatched. The bard recalled ancient tales of a dreadful unlife that awaited those who offend the gods and descend into cannibalism, and all thought of the tale of the ancient thieves, the mad king, and the barrels full of rats.

Beyond was a bedroom that contained ancient rotten furniture and another ghoul. Not surprised this time,the company rushed into combat with the vile creature. More of its kind burst into the room through tatty remains of ancient curtains – zombies and another ghoul. By now the party was hardened to such horrors, and made a good accounting of themselves, quickly destroying the undead. A thorough search revealed a small cache of treasure, including six large rubies, but not the promised hoard of which Angelus awaited his share back at the tavern.

Finally, behind a locked door, the guild’s vaults were uncovered. A large chamber was filled – tragically – with ruined ancient art. Disintegrating, sodden paintings, moldered tapestries, bolts of rotten silk were everywhere. All that was recovered of value were a few random coins and three arrows, clearly of elvish make and intriguingly free of rust or rot.

At last the group uncovered the final remaining chamber of the guild, an ancient temple of the Morrigan, the goddess of battle, now desecrated and rededicated to the Chel. On the far wall an arch stood above a dais, behind which hung a crude tapestry depicting the same comet and mountain scene previously uncovered. A shambling clump of zombies wallowed moaning into the group’s lantern light, and from behind them came a whisper of motion; a pale, beautiful and deadly-seeming apparition emerged.

This last streaked across the room and through a pillar to claw, cackling, at Pelagius. The rogue skipped nimbly backwards and loosed one of the elvish arrows at the ghost, and was satisfied to see it strike true. Erdan lunged at the thing’s flank, and while his unenchanted blade was nowhere near as effective, it was thankfully enough to dispel whatever black sorcery held the spectre to this world. Pelagius watched in silent prayer as it dissipated with a mournful sigh.

Returning to civilization, the party paid off Angelus, who was quite disappointed at the small haul from the former thieves guild but surprisingly trusting of the party’s accounting. As regards the former guildhall itself, all agreed that it would make a good bolt-hole if nothing else.

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