Yesterday I ran the first playtest session of the Wintergris project I have in progress. It’s actually shaping up to be bigger than Wintergris proper, which is simply the name of one of the region’s noteworthy cities. In fact, I believe I’ll be changing the name of the campaign to reflect the larger territory itself — the Pagan Lands. It has a little more immediate satisfaction.
Frog God is Bill Webb of Necromancer Games, and since I love Necromancer's version of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy so much, is it any wonder that I love their treatment of S&W?
It’s a classic swords-and-sorcery hexcrawl, using Frog God Games’ compilation of Matthew Finch’s Swords & Wizardry rules. In it, the players take the roles of the ill-fated Thirteenth Legion, sent from the distant Empire to garrison at Fort Lorica, in the midst of the Pagan Lands. But when the PCs arrive, their legion is slaughtered by rampaging Kelts, and their PCs are the only survivors. Marooned in the middle of a hostile foreign land during a harsh winter, the PCs have to both survive and explore. Here’s part of the player information:
Your party is all that remains of General Markav’s Thirteenth Legion.
At the end of an ill-fated push by Emperor Kalasthes into the Pagan Lands, a horde of savages shattered the Thirteenth. Just one day outside the fort at Lorica, an overwhelming force of barbarian tribes united under the leadership of the druids ruined the Thirteenth Legion. Thinking they had annihilated the Imperial interlopers, the barbarians advanced past the battlefield, leaving your desperate party badly beaten but alive.
Your home in Carcosa is a thousand miles away. Between here and the Eternal City are the perils of the Pagan Lands, the tumultuous Mordant Channel, and no telling what obstacles on the mainland.
The fortress at Lorica seems your best immediate option. The barbarian tribes have advanced away from the direction of the stone fort, so you should be able to reprovision there and rejoin the Imperial Army.
The Pagan Lands are actually a large island unto themselves, so named because the greatest empire on the adjacent continent has yet to bring them under its cultural sway. This empire, ruled by a sovereign named Kalasthes, covets land that doesn’t belong to it, so occasionally sends garrisons and establishes forts upon this island frontier in hopes of one day conquering it. That day has yet to come, and if the people (and other denizens…) of the Pagan Lands have their way, it never will. PCs who are part of the Pagan Lands campaign are the survivors of one of these doomed forays into the island frontier, and now find themselves trapped on the island with no way home. In classic, old-school form, they now have the opportunity to explore the island and perhaps even claim a portion of it for themselves.
Last night’s game began well, with a handful of White Wolf crew willing to brave the savage frontier. Rich played Magnus Agrippa, cleric of the legion and bearer of the fallen standard. Ned played MacLee, a monk, skirmisher of the Thirteenth. Eddy played Belc, a legionnaire infantryman. Oscar played Salvador the ranger, the legion’s scout.
The party wasted little time in getting their salvaged supplies together and striking out for Lorica, which they knew was about a day away… in some direction. They followed the remnant of a road they assumed to be Imperial, but it was in very poor repair, and what business would the Empire have had building a road out here anyway? Maybe it had just been neglected for many years.
Heading along the ruined road toward the foothills of the mountains where they supposed the fort to be, they came across a group of inhuman leper-pilgrims with whom they had no ability to communicate. Rather than parley with the wretched creatures, the legionnaires set up a crossfire ambush and slew the three who wore any weapons. Whatever plague they bore had ravaged them, and their bodies burst like overripe fruit when struck. (Someone failed his saving throw to contract the disease — which I conducted without the players’ knowledge — but I won’t yet say whom.) The rest of the reeking lepers fled into the surrounding hills.
Shortly thereafter, the PCs found what they could only assume was Fort Lorica, but it wasn’t what they expected. It certainly bore Imperial heraldry, but it looked to have been abandoned for decades at least. Trees growing in the courtyard had collapsed some of the walls and the sally gates had long been destroyed or rotted away. The immediate threat, however, was the carrion crawler that had taken up residence in the ruin. The party dispatched it with little difficulty, but the beastie did leave Belc in a state of paralysis for over an hour—
—which proved troublesome as an avalanche tumbled down the mountain and buried half of the fort. It was mostly snow, but that didn’t matter for the time being. WIth great effort, they hauled the disabled Belc into the usable portion of the fortress and Magnus Agrippa planted the standard on the parapet to reclaim the abandoned ruin in the name of the Thirteenth.
(This is one of the things the Pagan Lands campaign provides for the characters. The decimated PCs should find the fort in short order, which gives them a home base, if a shabby one, to call their own and to allow them a place to rest and replenish.)
During the night, a small band of tribesmen looking similar to those who slaughtered the legion approached the fort, but made gestures of peace. The remaining legionnaires weren’t having any of it. Magnus Agrippa cursed them for filthy heathens and MacLee menaced them face-to-face. Unable to communicate, as neither spoke the other’s language, the confused Kelts (not that the PCs discovered that they were such…) gave up and moved on.
The next night, after the legionnaires spent a day foraging, repairing the walls, and digging out the avalanche, a small flock of mephitic rodent parasites flew clumsily into the fort camp, taking MacLee and Salvador by surprise. One gorged itself on MacLee’s blood, killing the hapless monk. Another plunged its thirsty beak into Salvador’s neck before having its neck snapped like a massive tick. The last met its end at the swordsmanship of Belc.
When the legionnaires rose the next day, they gave MacLee a burial with proper honors, and met one of their number who had survive and pulled himself out of the carnage after they had left. This was Decimus, a true victim of random character generation. With an Intelligence of 3, a Wisdom of 4, and a Charisma of 8, Decimus probably isn’t long for this dire world, but he is strong and, it seems , a bit lucky.
Thus reinforced, the party ventured forth, exploring the forested lands around their mountain outpost, keeping as much as possible to the remnants of the road, which sometimes vanished for as much as a mile before another segment of it had survived. Progress was slow, given the winter weather, the horrible state of the road, and the surrounding wilderness. At one point, the party discovered a great cauldron, wrought from cold iron, that had been buried up to its lip in the earth. They left this well enough alone. They likewise let discretion play the better part to valor when they heard an ominous WHUMP-ing sound in the forest — which turned out to be a hairy, naked giant hurling boulders and screaming at something they couldn’t see. They even skirted a village of tribesmen, fearing that the people were of the same race as those who had run down their legion. The group spent a month making slow progress up the ruined road and creeping past the village when it became obvious the road stopped there.
If you found something bubbling here, would you drink it? And that's why you're not a PC with a Wisdom of 4.
As forest gave way to a wintry freshwater swamp, however, the party’s curiosity got the better of them, and they overturned a kettle of some mysterious liquid on the boil over an active fire (after cajoling Decimus into drinking some of the dubious brew). Sinister runestones lay scattered around the fire, and when the Imperials disturbed the site, a wicked shade manifested, chilling Belc to the bone and demanding that the party slay a witch and set it free to atone for befouling its site of binding. The party reluctantly agreed, and headed back to the village, where they believed the with to be staying.
They skulked around the perimeter of the peaceful settlement, watching the movements of the villagers and their hunters. When it became obvious that this was no military community, they left a few of the runestones that they had retrieved from the witch’s fire and left them within suspicious distance of a hunter’s path. Sure enough, a hunter discovered them and brought them to the attention of one of the other villagers, who then confronted a tribeswoman with them. She responded severely, which the lurking Imperials took as evidence of witchery, and they planned their response.
That night, under cover of darkness, they raided the suspected witch’s hut, which she shared with a dozen other villagers. In the shock of the invasion, they made a beeline for her and slew her on the spot. An elder shouted out — in the Imperial tongue! — for everyone to stop, but to no avail. The villagers responded to the assault and managed to pull Belc down and slay him with dagger-strikes, even after Magnus Agrippa used his holy powers to grant him vitality.
A witch almost certainly lives here.
With the witch dead, the legionnaires fled into the night, and we called the session there, on a semi-cliffhanger of them eluding the angry and bewildered villagers and regrouping… somewhere.
From the gamemaster’s seat, I was happy with how the session played out, both in the diversity of the character roles, and in the pacing of the session. It was interesting to rule that a month of exploration had occurred, and enough encounters happened so that the elapsing month didn’t just seem like handwaved, dead time. Normally, low-level characters usually acquire a few levels in a local dungeon, which would have been easy to accomplish in the location of Fort Lorica, but I wanted something that allowed the desperate characters to have something they could call their own right away, so that they wouldn’t feel completely overwhelmed by the situation.
I also really enjoy the on-the-fly judgments the players have to make while sussing out a situation. With the presentations of the creatures in the Pagan Lands as unique and monstrous entities rather than “You see six orcs,” the players never really know what they’re dealing with until the dice start falling. Avoiding a creature, coming up with experimental approaches, and undertaking problems without resorting to “proven” tactics is part of the appeal to me, and part of what I want to accomplish with the setting and project.