This is very much how I imagine Kalasthes' lost Thirteenth Legion looking.
Only the cleric Magnus Agrippa made it back to Fort Lorica after the last foray into the Pagan Lands, which is to say, only his player (Rich) was able to return with him alive. Eddy had previously played the fighter Belc, who met an untimely end with his guts spilled on the floor of a Keltic longhouse, so this time he undertook another survivor of the 13th Legion: the monk Petellius. Ethan joined us this time, with a Keltic fighter named Beliax — another victim of random chargen, yoked with a Wisdom of three. Three. Even “Drink that? Okay” Decimus had a Wisdom of four. But Decimus wasn’t there this time, and neither was Salvador (since Ned and Oscar were out), so we ruled that everyone simply hadn’t met back up after the debacle in the Keltic village and only Magnus Agrippa had returned to the fort for this session.
From the get-go, I knew this was going to be a good session, and it definitely paid off in one of my favorite currencies, which are emergent details. They come as a result of the broad-strokes setting design I’m exercising with the Pagan Lands, because I love to see the mutual exploration and creation of setting detail between the GM and players. This time around, the details emerged that:
- The Empire seems to have a society that leans toward the monastic, or at least the military does. Petellius was the second monk PC to survive the shattering of the Thirteenth Legion, so we sort of surmised that some estimable amount of the imperial legions belonged to these regimented orders. It makes sense, since the rough sketch of the empire is one of inviolate Law, and disciplined ranks of soldiers fit that concept perfectly.
- Low stats don’t always represent hopeless or cartoonish ineptitude. Beliax, with his Wisdom of three, wasn’t a bumbling doofus. Ethan portrayed him as a Kelt who had suffered a formidable head wound, and who as a result forgot his Keltic allegiance, finding himself press-ganged into the Imperial irregulars. With his very low Wisdom, he found it to be the best course to simply follow orders, and he fell into the ranks effortlessly.
- Well, sort of effortlessly. Magnus Agrippa is notably intolerant of the barbarians of the Pagan Lands, and his first order of business was to force Beliax to his knees and swear him into the Thirteenth. He then took his razor to the Kelt’s beard and untamed hair, remaking him in the (roughly cut) image of an Imperial.
- As play progressed, we also filled in a few more details about the faith of the Empire, with especial attention to the military. When asked for details about what god or power he was invoking when he cast the clerical standby, Cure Light Wounds, Rich decided that Magnus Agrippa was actually practicing a sort of ancestor-worship. This ultimately refined into the concept that the clerics of the Thirteenth actually called upon the blessings of an ancient general-saint who served as the patron of their legion. And from there it was a logical conclusion that each of the legions had is own sainted patron-general. How does this fit in with whatever whatever other religion and gods may exist for the Empire? At this point, who knows — but it’s an absolutely wonderful emergent detail.
As the session began, the characters staged from Fort Lorica with the intent to follow the line of the mountains and avoid the badlands to the immediate east. Taking unreliable mountain paths and trails to the northeast, they made slow progress (expanding the party’s hexmap by only two hexes of geography). What they found, however, was significant.
Shaped like people, but you don't really relate to them; that's why I like giants.
As the group pressed into the mountain range, the trail took a switchback that an unknown party had marked with a hastily erected warning sign. Cobbled together from wood and carved with coarse letters in an unknown language, the sign also bore an unmistakable omen, in that a partial human corpse lay draped across it, gray and foul, but preserved by the cold of the clime. The Thirteenth pressed cautiously onward and up the trail, noting the carrion birds that circled overhead. Further in front of them yawned a fissure in the mountain wall, and a charnel odor emanated from it. The path before the opening was strewn with gore of various states of freshness.
The grim interlude came to an abrupt end, however, with a guttural roar and a thunderous explosion of stone. An enormous, savage, titan of a humanoid from across the spanning chasm had hurled a boulder at them. As they looked on and considered their next action, a similar unshaven mammoth of a humanoid poked its head out from the crack in the mountain wall. The Thirteenth had stumbled into the territory of a pair of feuding giants.
As they made it back around the hairpin, Petellius pressed himself against the rock wall as Magnus Agrippa and Beliax scrambled for higher vantage, looking for a boulder to tumble down upon the closing giant.
The creature lumbered around the corner, wielding a meaty bone like a club, and pulped Petellius, who surprised him by being there, but was unable to strike a telling blow. Magnus Agrippa and Beliax heaved desperately against a boulder, but were unable to topple it upon their foe. The giant climbed the slope, having some difficulty finding broad enough purchase with which to heave up its bulk.
The legionaries gave it one last, frantic shove—
—and the boulder gave, tumbling down the mountain and leveling the enraged giant. It was an only momentary victory, however, as the giant seemed to be gaining its senses while Magnus Agrippa pelted it with sling stones and Beliax tried to cleave its fingers from its climbing hand and send it roaring into the chasm. No such luck.
But then that halcyon joy of gaming, the critical success, was visited upon the table. Normally, the Frog God compilation of Swords & Wizardry recommends only a +1 bonus to damage on a critical success, but remember, “rulings, not rules,” and, what the hell, the party was way outclassed by a superior opponent, so this was a moment when the excitement of the moment outweighed unerring fidelity to the rules.
Beliax, in the throes of the Keltic warp-spasm, hefted his axe and hurled it at the giant, who was pulling himself up the ledge to his full height. The axe took him in the breastbone, whereupon he teetered backward, and then hurtled forward, crushed beneath the brutal boulder heaved from across the open air by the rival giant. Beliax and Magnus Agrippa gaped for a moment, and then rushed to attend the broken form of Petellius.
From a game perspective, this challenge certainly outclassed the characters in terms of combat, but the exploration was going so well that I didn’t just want to see the characters slaughtered and have a new wave of Imperials sally forth from Lorica, so I adapted the encounter to one more of a traditional “problem solving” scenario. The players thought cleverly, taking the high ground and using the environment, so while they didn’t “kill the monster” in literal combat terms, they did overcome the challenge, and thus gained the experience reward that would have come from the fight itself.
(As an aside, it’s a damned shame that the word “giant” as an adjective is the same noun used to describe these sorts of things. It makes it very hard to lend a sense of strangeness and inscrutability to what is obviously a very Other creature when the words used to describe them happen to be the exact name of the commonly accepted creature type. I sufficed by placing emphasis on their great stature and unkempt physical selves, but the point remains that a giant is a giant.)
Big money, no whammies.
With wounds patched and sorrows averted, the party laid low until the rival giant grew bored and moved on, then they investigated the first giant’s charnel lair. Inexplicably, the giant’s trove was not the expected heap of mildewed furs and gnawed bones, but rather a vast quantity of non-Imperial coins. These were curious things, with holes stamped in the middle, and many of the greater “stacks” of them had been threaded by coarse rope. (This is another emergent element I greatly enjoy. This was just a simple, random treasure allotment, with none of the increments subbed out for magic items, but it made for an interesting story detail. I knew that occasional hoards of coins like these would be found in the Pagan Lands, but why here, in the lair of this particular giant?)
Further exploration of the giant’s cave revealed a small tunnel in the back through which a human could carefully wriggle, but certainly not a giant. The Thirteenth entered. Beyond this dip, they found a honeycomb of twisting caverns, and the skeletal corpse of a three-fingered… something. It was definitely demihuman in build and stature, and it held a rotted purse of several coins of a different type. Additional exploration of the small cave chambers revealed a host of ratlike beasts, a chamber of centipedish vermin that had driven the rats from another cavern section, and finally, a breach into a section of worked stone passages. The party’s first dungeon!
Beyond the twisty cavern passages lies... worked stone? Okay, what's going on here?
During the rest of the session, the legionnaires explored some of the first level of this dungeon, which was populated by a gray-skinned, very hostile demihuman race whose communication sounded more like a clicking or chittering than a civilized tongue. Two of their kind were comparative hulking brutes of their kind, as big and bulky as Beliax, while the rest were perhaps four feet tall and of a more furtive (if equally foul) demeanor. By the time the session concluded, the party had discovered a chest of an origin more sophisticated than these wretched creatures, which contained more coins of the type possessed by the skeletal remains — not Imperial, but neither the outlandish hole-punched coins in the giant’s lair. To clase the session, the legionnaires headed back to Fort Lorica with one of the brutes in thrall, and with an eye on investigating the rest of the dungeon upon their next expedition.
All in all, a very successful game, and everyone left the table entertained. Magnus Agrippa gained a level, Beliax gained a level, and Petellius is markedly closer to reaching level two, and hopefully gaining more hit points than his current, very delicate four. The winter weather was again primarily dressing here, though it did account for some of the party’s slow progress through the mountains. My objectives for the next few sessions are to bring the weather into a more prominent role, and to encourage the players via the encounters presented to bankroll a few hirelings.
The Pagan Lands campaign uses the Swords and Wizardry compilation ruleset published by Frog God Games. Eddy also speaks a bit about the Pagan Lands from the player perspective and gameplay considerations over at his blog.