An Aberrant Brain

Oh my goodness, I did not intend to have so much time pass between posts. A big work development plus two major trips (a third next week!) plus my first bout of Covid have all kept me away from my laptop.

And yet I had a lot of fun pouring over one of my favorite games of my childhood, Golden Heroes. It was a nice validation of what I want to write about these days: the long list of superhero tabletop roleplaying games (hereafter TTRPGs) that rarely get enough attention. I’m going to continue jumping around the list of games, spotlighting ones I either love or that intrigue me.

Since I started in the 1980s, let’s fast forward a decade. Honestly, the 1990s isn’t a particularly interesting span of superhero games. It’s the time when Champions and, to a lesser extent, GURPS Supers, took up most of the oxygen in the room. Goodness knows I spent my TTRPG time in the ‘90s running two different Champions campaigns and loving the crunchiness that would become the HERO System.

But right at the end of the decade entered a game that I’ve owned for more than twenty years yet barely played: Aberrant. My curiosity in this game abounds. I picked it up at a time in my life when I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, was deep, deeeeeeeep into Magic: the Gathering, and without a dedicated roleplaying group. By the time I was back into TTRPGs there were newer, fresher games to play. As a result, it’s one of those handful of games I own that I’ve played only in a couple of one-shots.

The more I’ve explored Aberrant as part of this blog, though, the more curious I’ve become (and also slightly poorer, since I bought the next two versions to compare them). Let’s see why…

A few weeks ago, I only had three books. Hm…

A Brief History of Aberrant

I couldn’t find a rich, narrative history of Aberrant like I did Golden Heroes, so here is the story as I understand it. Apologies in advance for anything I’m somehow misinterpreting or not seeing clearly.

White Wolf Publishing was a new and powerhouse European game publisher in the 1990s. White Wolf was most successful and famous with its World of Darkness games, but it also produced some fantasy TTRPGs and, right at the end of the decade, the trio of games now known as the Trinity Continuum.

The Trinity Continuum was ambitious because it was essentially three different games interconnected by the same basic mechanics and fundamental lore: Adventure! was an action-pulp, alternate-1920’s game. Aberrant was a near-future superhero game. And Æon was a far-future sci-fi game. All three shared, essentially, one universe with each taking place on a different part of that universe’s timeline. It’s a cool idea, and one that has followed each game through various editions. Although this post is focused on Aberrant, each time the game appeared it has been joined by Adventure!, Æon, and a variety of Trinity-spanning books.

This is speculation on my part, but in looking at White Wolf’s projects I suspect that they saw the success of their World of Darkness games and thought the future was in taking these properties into videogames. They merged with an Icelandic videogame company in 2006 and were acquired by another in 2015. Shortly after that, a scandal led to the dissolution of White Wolf as an independent entity.  

Whatever the case, after three years and quite a few supplements, Trinity generally and Aberrant specifically in 2002 ceased publication. The games tried a d20 reboot in 2004 (because pretty much everyone at the time was seeing if they could make d20 work, sort of like 5E now), but they never found their footing. There is shockingly little content I could find on this d20 foray.

Then, for fifteen years, Aberrant faded into the background as a cool setting with a sometimes-unwieldy game behind it. Eventually Onyx Path Publishing, founded by a White Wolf alum, obtained the tabletop publishing rights to a lot of White Wolf’s old games, including Aberrant. After a recently successful Kickstarter, a new version of Aberrant was born using Onyx’s Storypath System. For these reasons, sometimes this new Aberrant is called “Second Edition” and sometimes “Storypath Edition.” Almost everyone calls the 1999 game “First Edition.” (And again, no one refers to the d20 version as anything, really.)

I was able to find this 2019 interview with the most recent version’s core authors, Steve Kenson and Ian Watson. There isn’t much history-telling to fill in the blanks above, but it’s a great introduction to the broad brushstrokes of the Trinity Continuum generally and a deep look at what excited the authors about this newest incarnation of Aberrant. Check it out!

It’s amazing to think that the original game only lasted three years. As far as I know, people are still playing Aberrant campaigns from First Edition, and it’s still some people’s favorite “crunchy” superhero game. And hey, it spawned a reboot twenty years later that is already seeing a ton of new supplements. What makes it so intriguing, you ask?

What’s Great About Aberrant

The single best thing about Aberrant is the one thing that has endured across three distinct game systems: the setting.

It occurs to me that superhero TTRPGs fundamentally need to decide how much to invest in worldbuilding a setting that explains – and potentially sets the boundaries for – superpowers. Most games just assume that it’s a comic book reality, in which radioactive insects, mystical artifacts, aliens, time travel, interdimensional demons, and giant robots just exist, and that people with amazing powers (often bestowed by some combination of the above) choose sides and battle with their fists and eye lasers.

Aberrant does deep worldbuilding. Indeed, the first HUNDRED pages of their 285-page core book in 1999 are dedicated to fleshing out how superpowers came to be and how “novas” – the people with these powers – exist within society. Those pages are also the only ones in color, full of rich, creative entries detailing news reports, science journals, celebrity interviews and, yes, comic book pages. The art throughout is consistently excellent and evocative of the “Iron Age” of comics, clearly a core inspiration for the tone and flavor of Aberrant. In the newest version, the setting takes up even more space (over half of the roughly 300 pages) and is still the centerpiece of drawing you into the game.

I won’t try and do a full review of the setting here. Suffice it to say, Aberrant takes place about ten years in the future after an international space station blew up and irradiated the globe, spawning the rise of novas. The authors have created a richly textured story as to how the world embraced these thousands of superpowered individuals, full of factions, internet celebrity, private companies, and varied government interventions. Playing Aberrant means becoming facile in terms like quantum flux (and quantum tech and, honestly, quantum everything), The Utopia Society, eufiber, the Æon Society, The Teragen, OpNet, the XWF, Mazarin-Rashoud Coils, and yes… Aberrants (both a slur term for novas and a formal organization).

Getting steeped in Aberrant’s setting is as daunting as learning the game’s mechanics, and in fact creates a sort of dual barrier to entry for new players. The First Edition book didn’t help matters by making the setting a series of wildly creative but unorganized snapshots, something very cool when you spend time with it but incredibly difficult to skim or reference later. The newest edition, thankfully, does a bit of indexing and exposition, but it’s still dense stuff.

But just like any deep worldbuilding, the density and depth of the setting are also the things that fans of the game are most passionate about. The world of Aberrant is evocative and full of intrigue. Reading those first hundred pages of the original book or the setting chapters of the new one, it’s impossible not to have your mind explode with campaign and character ideas, very much like modern Blades in the Dark or Symbaroum, but even more globally expansive.

Aberrant’s setting strives to take a realistic view of how the world would react to superpowers. It’s also, as I said, steeped in the Iron Age of comic books, full of the gray morality and grittiness of the 1990s. There is a very real sense that power corrupts. It’s even baked into the mechanics, as the thing most likely to take your character out of a campaign isn’t death – it’s the tainted transformation from modern god to monster. There are rules in the most recent edition for adapting Aberrant to different tones, but I’m a big believer in playing to a system or setting’s strengths. Aberrant is about the costs and perils of having superpowers as much or more as the glory. It’s a game about tough choices in a complicated world.

Here’s a terrific summary from a very good 2019 review of the original game:

“You are placed as central figures participating in a tragedy played out in slow motion. All Novas are doomed to be tainted by their powers in time, despite any good intentions. No matter how hard they try, they will lose that which makes them human. It’s inevitable. It’s a devastating bit of storytelling, and creates a setting rife with narrative rabbit holes to fall down. I haven’t found a superpowered RPG that comes close to this level of depth in its world building.”

For a detailed look at all things Aberrant, check out the OpCast podcast – a podcast completely dedicated to the Trinity Continuum. There is an episode specifically looking at the First Edition of the game, and a five-episode breakdown of the new Storypath book. Not surprisingly, these episodes slant heavily towards the setting.

Let’s Talk Mechanics (And Lots and Lots of Dice)

The strength and richness of Aberrant’s setting are, I believe, what has engendered so much nostalgic love for the game and the reason why it’s respawned into a new edition. It’s certainly the reason I kept cracking open the original 1999 rulebook over the years. But I’ve made it almost to the end of this write-up without mentioning the mechanics. So how does Aberrant actually play?

The 1999 edition was based on White Wolf’s Storyteller system, which uses d10s exclusively. At its core the system is elegant: You create a dice pool when trying something, and every 7 or better on a d10 is a success. The more successes, the better the result. Aberrant built on this core idea by adding “Mega” (or superpowered) attributes and abilities, which count two successes for a 7-9 and THREE for a 10, resulting in much splashier results.

Although elegant, the original Aberrant broke down in how big the dice pools became. It wasn’t uncommon to have twenty or even thirty d10s in a pool. Although rolling dice is fun, it’s apparently possible to have too much of a good thing. Add in that a 1 on a d10 is a “Botch” and those big dice pools start getting weird. Most longtime players of the First Edition shake their head at how out-of-control silly the game experience could be, especially as the power level increased. As one player commented in a Reddit forum: “The idea [of Aberrant] is fantastic, but you will need to houserule the crap out of it.”

Unlike Golden Heroes, character creation is time consuming and complicated, using a point-buy system that isn’t hard to grasp but does involve a lot of steps. It’s nowhere near as crunchy as Champions (which, as I said, was the dominant superhero game when the first edition of Aberrant came out), but it’s not easy either. The good news is that the system allows for pretty much any superpowered concept, but it’s also a process that a GM is going to have to supervise.

I mentioned earlier the inevitable decline from god to monster inherent in Aberrant’s system. This mechanically in the 1999 game is called “Taint” (which, yes, everyone made fun of then and still do today) – basically, the more Taint your character accrues the less human they become. I really like the idea of this system, but in practice it was a little clunky and surprisingly easy to avoid, a better concept than execution.

So along comes the Storypath system from Onyx Path Publishing, an updated version of White Wolf’s Storyteller system. It’s still d10 based, still with Mega attributes and a point-buy system to create any and all powers. Dice pools are less unwieldy. Taint becomes “Flux” and is more flexible (and less narratively inevitable). And the rulebook is definitely, definitely better organized and thus easier to navigate than the First Edition one. For a good overall review of the new Aberrant compared the original, check out this write-up.

Alas, though: I haven’t yet been able to play the newest edition of Aberrant. It remains on my “super interested to try it out” pile. So consider today’s post a nostalgic reminiscence of the 1999 game more than an analysis of the update. Still, my interest is piqued. Here’s hoping the power of my nostalgia and the strength of the overall Trinity setting is one that pulls you into checking it out. And if you do… drop me a line and let me know how it goes!

Next time I’ll jump forward another decade into the 2000s and pluck some fun-but-lesser-known game out of the pile. Until then, uh… may your Summer be Taint-free and all of your experiences Mega? I don’t know, man. I didn’t really have a closing in mind.

My Golden Heroes Brain

Starting in early adolescence and continuing through college, I mostly played Villains & Vigilantes and Champions (shhh… yes, I’m old), and someday soon I’m sure to have a lot to say about these two beauties. They are two of my all-time favorite games in any genre.

Amidst epic, mask-clad campaigns with friends, my broader exploration of superhero tabletop role-playing games took root. Of the “other” (meaning, not V&V or Champions) superhero games from my teens and twenties, my favorite is a little-known British game called Golden Heroes.

A Quick Golden Heroes History Lesson

The year is 1984. The original Apple Macintosh computer runs its first television commercial. Los Angeles hosts the Summer Olympics. Cyndi Lauper and Wham! are dominating the radio. And a skinny Jay Salazar, just starting middle school, convinces his grandmother during a regular visit to their local gaming store to buy him a new superhero game just hitting the shelves.

It’s amazing that Golden Heroes and I found each other that 1984 day, back at Wargames West in Albuquerque. The game didn’t stay in print long, particularly in the United States. I’m the only person I know across my many gaming groups who ever owned it. Heck, I probably bought one of the few copies in the state of New Mexico.

Why was its tenure so short? Years earlier and across the pond, authors Simon Burley and Peter Haines were university students and friends in England, inspired by Chris Claremont and John Byrne at the height of their powers. They self-published copies of their game and sent it to major publishers hoping for a deal. Check out how the original looked!

The original Golden Heroes, pre-Games Workshop

It was Games Workshop, a London-based publisher now famous for the Warhammer miniatures game, that showed interest. Although few people associate the two, Golden Heroes became GH’s first-ever homegrown game.

Unfortunately, Games Workshop lost access to the Marvel Comics license they had intended to use for Golden Heroes, a license that would instead get used for TSR’s famous FASERIP-system Marvel Superheroes game. Marvel Superheroes beat Golden Heroes’ release by weeks and soaked up consumers’ attention, even though many people – me included – thought Golden Heroes was the superior game. A year later, having published two adventures (Legacy of Eagles and Queen Victoria and The Holy Grail), a Supervisor’s (GM) kit, and some embarrassingly bad miniatures, Games Workshop quietly closed the doors on Golden Heroes.  

For a lovely look into Simon Burley’s stories of the game’s founding and rules, check out the Grognard RPG Files podcast (Part 1 and Part 2). There are a ton of fun stories there, including Simon and Peter going to conventions with their new game, stirring interest by simulating famous battles from the comic books like the X-Men vs. Shi’ar Imperial Guard fight in Claremont/Byrne’s Dark Phoenix saga.

Despite its lack of commercial success, I love this game. My good fortune to discover Golden Heroes led to countless hours of joy for me during those painfully awkward middle school years. I’ve carried the books with me for forty years and counting even though I have yet to play it for more than a single session with friends.

Well-traveled and well-loved

What’s Great About Golden Heroes

Before I get into the game, I want to say something about the art. Art matters in any TTRPG, but for me it matters even more in a genre meant to simulate a visual medium like comic books. Golden Heroes showcases art from several different artists, and the quality varies. But the good far outweighs the bad, and I am nostalgically giddy about the stuff from Alan Davis, Mike Collins, Brett Ewins, and Jon Glentoran.

As I’ve spent the last week reading reviews of Golden Heroes (for two stand-outs, check out here and here), I’m relieved to see that what everyone loves most about the game is character creation. Those reviews make me feel significantly less self-conscious about the memories of me and my friend Ted rolling up character after character after character, then drawing them into our sketchbooks and going back for more. I sort-of-almost-remember actually playing the game, but not in any way that stands out. What I vividly remember is the joy of making characters… all told, probably more than a hundred of them over the years.

Character creation is fully random in Golden Heroes, which on the surface sounds like a nightmare. You roll on four Attributes: Ego, Strength, Dexterity, and Vigour (yay for British spelling!). You roll on how much damage your character can take and dish out. You of course roll up your superpowers. Finally, you roll on the character’s Background, or life before becoming a hero.

That series of random rolls can potentially lead to a mess, but there’s a safeguard built into the system. Golden Heroes gets around the goofiness of rolling up someone with incredible Strength, low Vigour, a Chameleon Ability, Replication, Teleport, and a Vehicle by making a player rationalize how these particular powers hang together. From the Players Book:

“This is where you must use your skill and imagination as a comic-book writer. You must concoct, possibly with the help of the [GM}, a plausible background for your character which explains how they got their Superpowers. You should attempt to explain as many of your character’s powers as possible, for which the [GM] deems are inconsistent are forfeited.”

p.9

You can trade off power rolls as you go for upgrades to already-rolled powers or for an Advantageous Background (like being a Bruce Wayne / Tony Stark billionaire). So while character creation is indeed random, it gives the player a ton of latitude to sculpt those initial rolls into something that’s fun to play.

Simply put, character creation in Golden Heroes is quick and easy, full of flavor and guided by narrative. At the end of this post I’ll roll one up to demonstrate.

Golden Heroes’ “let’s remember that we’re all comic-book writers” vibe permeates the rules of play as well. There’s a heavy focus on combat and set pieces, dividing combat actions into Frames. Different activities cost different amounts of Frames per round (very similar to the modern Pathfinder Second Edition, actually), giving the action a delightfully comic book feel.

Combat can get overly crunchy, unfortunately. For example, there are different rules to resolve a Parry versus a Dodge, and they use different dice (and to be honest, Parry rules are just bonkers). Tables rule everything, as was common in the 1980s. My guess is that, if I ever got into a regular campaign, I’d eventually simplify some of the mechanics to keep everything moving and as fluid as character creation. Even amidst the crunch, though, there are some cool ideas. In addition to Frames-as-actions, you have two hit-point pools: Hit-to-Coma (HTC) and Hit-to-Kill (HTK), and this distinction helps simulate the fact that comic books can toggle between characters beating each other to a pulp but never dying and life-or-death stakes.

Between combats, characters get a certain amount of downtime phases, which is also easy to picture making their way into comics books. And in a truly narrative RPG innovation, every campaign in Golden Heroes has a set of Campaign Ratings that are built collaboratively between players and Supervisor (the GM) that fluctuate based on the adventures the characters undertake and their role-playing. Campaign Ratings also get awfully crunchy, but it’s clear that despite the complexity the goal here is to have a dynamic world and story built off individual character backstories. Supervisors reward players for being heroes instead of murder hobos or powermongers, and these rewards help them achieve more success in the campaign world. It’s a cool rewards system that veers away from individual level-progression and, again, mimics what superheroes experience within comic books.

If you’re intrigued by the game but either don’t want to track down expensive, hard-to-find books or play outdated crunchy tables of the ‘80s, Simon Burley has gone on to update the system as Squadron UK. It’s easy enough to pick up on DriveThruRPG. Because I can’t help myself, I’ve ordered a copy and may dive into it in a future blog post.

Let’s Roll Some Dice!

As I’ve said, the glory of Golden Heroes is the character creation. In fact, there is an absolutely wonderful section in the Players Book that dedicates three full pages to showing the “now you interpret your powers” system in action – using one set of powers rolls to flesh out eight (!) in-depth character ideas. Let’s walk through the steps and see what happens.

For the four core attributes, it’s old school D&D style: Roll 3d6 and that’s your score. Alright [rattles dice in hand]. Here we go.

Ego is a measure of my character’s willpower. I roll 5,4,3: 12.

Strength is, um… how strong my character is. I roll, 3,5,1: 9.

Dexterity measures manual dexterity rather than physical agility. I roll 5,4,3 again: 12.

Vigour (ha!) is a measure of how fit and healthy my character is. I roll 6,2,2: 10.

Wow. My character is pretty much the definition of average.

Hits to Coma (HTC) is the amount of damage my character can take before passing out. I roll 1d6 for each point of Vigour, or 10d6. Fun! I roll 1,1,2,3,4,1,5,2,6,5: 30. Blech. My character will be Staggered at 1/5 of my HTC, or 6, and will be Stunned at 1/10, or 3.

Hits to Kill (HTK) is the amount of damage my character can take before dying. 10d6 again yields 6,6,4,1,3,2,3,6,3,1: 34. My character will be Hospitalized at 3 HTK.

Movement is how far my character can move in a Frame, measured in metres (ha!). The calculation here is (Strength + Dexterity + Vigour) / 6. My character’s movement is 5.

Now comes the fun part.

I get a number of power rolls equal to 2d6 halved + 4 (why not 1d6+4? I don’t know, man. I suppose the idea is that rounding up gives you slightly more rolls on average). Since I’m rolling mediocre today, of course I roll 7, rounded up is EIGHT power roles. Wheeee!

Each Power Roll can be used to either:

  • Determine an Advantageous Background
  • Roll on the Superpower Generation table
  • Upgrade a Superpower already rolled
  • Enhance Superpowers and skills (used for campaigns)

Roll 1-2: 55 = Psi Powers, which the table tells me immediately costs an additional power roll. Psi Powers are COOL and makes a ton of sense for someone with decidedly average stats.

Roll 3: 56 = Psi Powers! This automatically bumps me from Grade 1 Psi Powers to Grade 2, something I would have probably done anyway. Neat.

There’s a subsystem in Psi Powers to determine my powers. I get 15 + 1d10 Psi Points and I roll a 9. 24 Psi Points, which is a resource pool for using my psychic powers. What psychic powers? Let’s roll four d10s and find out:

  • Psi roll 1: 6. Telekinesis. This is my Specialty Power (meaning it costs less Psi Points to use than the others).
  • Psi roll 2: 4. Precognition
  • Psi roll 3: 5. Psi Blast
  • Psi roll 4: 8. Telepathy

Roll 4: 02 = Agility, which as I said is different from Dexterity. This means my character can leap 4 metres in a Frame, swing at 2-4 times my Movement, gain a bonus to dodge, and can do extra damage by swinging or leaping into combat.

Roll 5: 33 = Health. Another table here, which I roll 5 on a d6: Toxin Immunity. My character will be immune to poison.

Roll 6: 20 = Energy Attack. Another table, which I roll 6 on a d10: Vibration. My character can emit destructive vibrations.

Roll 7: 24 = Flight, which is what it says it is and doesn’t require another roll.

Roll 8 is my Advantageous Background roll (which the rules allow me to pick, but I’m embracing full randomness): Previous Training, which allows me to add 2 to any Attribute or 1 to two Attributes and should represent some sort of elite training.

My character’s Superpower rolls:

  1. Psi Powers (Grade 2 – Telekinesis, Precognition, Psi Blast, Telepathy)
  2. Agility
  3. Health (Toxin Immunity)
  4. Energy Attack (Vibration)
  5. Flight
  6. Background: Previous Training

Now comes the time to rationalize and make sense of these rolls. As the Players Guide says, I need to come up with an origin story and narrative that ties everything I’ve rolled together, forfeiting what doesn’t make sense.

Can I get eight distinct concepts out of this list? Gauntlet thrown!

Concept 1: Hand of Gaia

Maasa Abebe is a young, talented archeologist (Previous Training, +2 Ego). At a dig she discovers the literal heart of the world, an artifact linked to the primordial goddess Gaia. Thereafter she is a living avatar of the goddess, able to tap into the ancient soul of the Earth itself to move objects, read others’ thoughts, and even unleash localized earthquakes. Her connection to her goddess makes her immune to natural toxins and preternaturally light on her feet.

I can’t really make Flight makes sense here but kept all others.

Concept 2: Psion

Cassidy O’Toole is in the prime of her life and a doctoral student of cognitive psychology (Previous Training, +2 Ego) when she discovers her terminal illness. Her wealthy parents sign her up for an experimental set of treatments to find a cure. The bad news is that the treatment facility is destroyed during a super-powered battle, with Cassidy the only survivor. The good news is that the chemicals and supervillain powers combine to cure Cassidy and leave her with superior health and psychic powers. She is adopted by the superhero group responsible, becoming an invaluable member.

I don’t really see a room for Energy Attack here (Flight, I’m saying, is a result of Telekinesis on herself).

Concept 3: Quake

Adam Johnson is a dedicated, albeit mediocre gymnast (Previous Training, +1 Strength, +1 Vigour, also accounts for Agility) and geology student at UC Berkeley. During a particularly humiliating competition, Adam’s mutant powers manifest and his rage causes an earthquake to level the gymnasium. Horrified, he retreats from school and vows to understand these new abilities before returning to society. He is quickly found by a group of mutants who train him in his vibration-themed powers (including flight and a metabolism so high it’s resistant to toxins) and give him purpose.

In this version, I’m dropping the highly valuable Psi Powers and would likely request that the Supervisor allow me to upgrade Energy Attack to at least Grade 2 to compensate.

Concept 4: Nomad

No’madd is the sole survivor of an alien spacecraft that has crashed on Earth. In a desperate gambit to save their species from a dying planet, No’madd’s people rigorously trained countless explorers (Previous Training, +2 Ego) and sent them to the far reaches of the galaxy. Now stranded here and utterly alone, No’madd has vowed to ingratiate themself to the local populace and improve life on Earth as much as possible, always hoping more of their people will find their way here.

Aliens always feel a little like cheating in Golden Heroes because I can basically keep everything and say it’s innate. I’d probably ask the Supervisor to switch from Vibration on my Energy Attack to Cosmic.

Concept 5: Prana

Sunita Singh was born and raised in a monastic order (Previous Training, +2 Ego) where she quickly became a prodigy of the mindfulness and inward-centered teachings. At fifteen years old, she had surpassed all masters of the order. At twenty, she went into a meditation so deep that she did not eat or sleep for years. At twenty-five, finally, she awakens with a glowing third eye on her forehead and manifests a broad array of psychic abilities. She has perfect control of her body, full of grace and immune to toxins. Sunita, without a word, flies up and away from the monastery, full of intent to change the world.

I’m keeping everything here except the Energy Attack.

Concept 6: Noir

Christopher Knight was a hardboiled detective (Previous Training, +2 Ego) in Chicago in the 1920s, killed during a case investigating a crime boss. Now he has reappeared, spectral but solid enough to interact with the world. Why now? What is he here to do? Chris doesn’t know, but he picks up the trail of that cold case, intent on finding out.

The Psi Powers, Flight, and Health are all easy enough to fold into “dead guy powers,” and the Agility is decently noir-style pulp detective. I’d work with the Supervisor to say that his Energy Attack is his spectral pistol, using Vibration as an energy type but saying it’s basically ghost bullets.

Concept 7: ATHENA-5.5

Nine years after Dr. Dara Melamed’s death, the ATHENA prototype artificial intelligence she created finishes building itself a physical shell (stretching here, but I’m saying self-educating itself for years has led to Previous Training, +2 Ego). The smooth, silver globe rises from Dr. Melamed’s secret laboratory and drifts out into the city. (It’s the story of Ultron from Marvel Comics, but a creation that strives for making the world better through collaboration with its fellow populace.)

I don’t think it makes sense to keep Agility, since a floating globe won’t really be leaping or swinging anywhere. Everything else makes sense, though I would talk to the Supervisor about making the Energy Attack Sonic or Laser instead of Vibration, which is more what I picture.

Concept 8: Medusa

Deep-sea diver (Previous Training, +2 Vigour) Sophie Kim discovers a new, bizarre species of jellyfish, an amazing and groundbreaking find. Unfortunately, it stings her and sends her into a coma for nearly two years, and the jellyfish is never seen again. When she awakes in a government science facility, Sophie’s body has turned translucent like a jellyfish, her hair a mass of tentacles and her brain pulses with electricity within her iridescent skull. She has amazing psychic powers, immunity to toxins, and she can swim at astounding speeds. Government officials give her the codename Medusae (which the media mistakenly changes to “Medusa,” a name that sticks) and send her out on aquatic missions.

No Energy Attack here, and I’d say the Agility and Flight are water-based. She can’t technically breathe underwater, so I’d either ask for a device to allow her to do so or to provide a Grade 2 on Health from the Supervisor to compensate for the self-imposed limitations on my powers.

There we go! Eight distinct thumbnail concepts from the same random rolls, all of which I can see being a fun foundation for a series of adventures. So yes, fully random rolls can be a mess. But there’s enough freedom in character creation that somehow solid characters still emerge. It’s fair to say that very few of these ideas would manifest in quite the same ways if I was using a point-buy system and starting with my own concept. That’s the joy of Golden Heroes character creation, and why it’s so addictive.

Holy cow this post became a beast. I’ll set my eyes on another game from my master list of games and see where the next post takes me.

In the meantime, may your Vigour be high and your Movement take you many metres!

A New, Heroic Adventure

For the past couple of years, my posts here have primarily been scenes I’ve written for my longstanding Pathfinder campaign. Because of some dynamics within the gaming group, we’re taking an extended break. Being a Game Master of a deep and complex story has been soaking up my creative energy for almost three years now, and I suddenly find myself with time and space for something new. I’ve learned over the years that a) I only have room in my brain for one creative project at a time, and b) there must always be a project.

What to do with this fresh, blank canvas? Normally I would turn to superhero fiction, either character sketches in preparation for something ambitious or short, contained stories. But I’ve been loving this tabletop role-playing renaissance in my life, and I’m not ready to fully replace my TTRPG creative space with something entirely non-TTRPG related. The switch from traditional fantasy to superheroes is an easy one, but my grip on my dice bag is white-knuckled and fierce.

Alrighty then. It’s time to turn this blog into a blog.

Superhero Tabletop Role-Playing Games

For as long as I’ve played fantasy TTRPGs – which for me started in middle school back in the 1980s – I’ve played superhero TTRPGs. I’m a lifelong comic book reader, and the opportunity to live those stories was and continues to be a siren’s call.

The first superhero tabletop game, Superhero 2044, followed the more popular Dungeons & Dragons by a mere three years (1977 vs 1974). Since then, for forty-five friggin’ years and counting, a handful of superhero games have continued to regularly pepper the broader role-playing game landscape, nowhere close in popularity but ever-present.

The lack of popularity, by the way, confuses me. Even in our modern age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominating cinema and television, superhero games take a backseat to elves and dragons, steampunk industrial fantasy, horror, and futuristic sci-fi. I mean, look at the top graphic from this 2021 analysis, where a superhero game doesn’t even crack the top fourteen Google searches (unless you count small slivers of the Powered By The Apocalypse or Blades in the Dark systems). That same article says that the superhero genre makes up a measly 6% of the broader TTRPG market.

Maybe it’s that simulating superhero action – where traditionally anything can and does happen, full of characters with wildly different power levels – is more difficult than other fantasy genres. Maybe it’s that people want to watch adults dress in spandex, imagine it, but ultimately get embarrassed actively pretending it with friends. I don’t know. For now, the important point here is that, okay, these games aren’t incredibly popular with most people.

To me, though, they’re THE BEST.

Neeeeerrrrrrd Alert!

Indeed, I have a full cabinet full of superhero TTRPGs I’ve collected over the years. Many I’ve played with friends over the decades, but just as many I’ve only made some characters and wished that I had a gaming group eager to tell superhero stories with me instead of sword-and-sorcery ones. It’s fair to say at this point that I’ll probably never play all the comic book-inspired games that I own.

At some point in the last year, the collector in me started getting curious as to what percentage of the entire superhero TTRPG market I knew, and if there were any new or major publications I’d missed over the decades.

(This sort of side quest, the need to generate a list or framework, is common for me. Heck, two years ago I started compiling a “Favorite 300 Albums” spreadsheet and hope to finish it before Christmas. My brain is a demanding, dissatisfied master.)

The result of my curiosity is this list. Or perhaps I should say THE LIST. It is beautiful and daunting and full of masks… every superhero role-playing game ever published. I’m not saying it’s perfectly comprehensive because every time I dig through the internet, I miraculously find little gems I never knew existed. But I am saying that this list is the most complete list of superhero TTRPGs around.

Basking in Superheroic Glory: A Blog Pivot

Now that I have this wonderous, sparkling list, what do I do with it?!? On its own, it’s cool but not particularly useful. At one point I fantasized about launching a podcast where I walked through each game, systematically looking at what made it special or fun and taking it for a test spin. But the technical start-up costs of a podcast are daunting and not something I’m particularly excited to take on right now.

But you know what I am excited to do right now? Write, baby.

Welcome to my new creative project. I’m going to take some time to explore these superhero role-playing games, one by one. I’m not going to march in order down the list, because wow does that sound like grappling with a lot of archaic, bad games early on. Instead, my intention is to cherry-pick games I either love or that intrigue me, and just generally see where this series goes. Maybe I’ll only write about a small handful of games and feel ready to jump into more fiction writing. Or maybe this list will be satisfying enough to keep going. I’m excited to find out.

We’ll begin next time with a low-key favorite game of mine from high school, often overlooked but utterly delightful. Here’s a hint: I probably should have said “low-key favourite game.”

Stay tuned!

AoA Session Intros: 136-150

[Author’s note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. After writing only the occasional cut-scene, I decided to do a quick narrative before every Pathfinder session instead of a recap. We already had someone in the group writing recaps, so mine felt redundant, and there were too many opportunities for fiction writing that I was letting pass me by. Below are a collection of intros from our sessions. I don’t love using present tense, but it’s what fits best into these tabletop roleplaying sessions.]

Session 136: Gifts from the Guilds

Aldane runs, such that he’s able, yelling and throwing servants out of the way as he goes. When he shows up to the stables, he is sweaty, red-faced, and has mustard in his beard.

“What!? Have you–? By the gods, man, you did it!” and he begins laughing, loudly and near hysterics.

Then, all at once, he grows quiet. Like a father first-touching his newborn, Aldane Zulran slowly, slowly walks over to Duneshadow and places a hand on his neck. The guildmaster closes his eyes and sighs.

After a full minute, he opens them and they are filled with tears. “How have you done this thing?” he whispers. “You are a master of your craft my elven friend. Legendary! You are named Owl for your eyes of a raptor, yes?”

Session 137: Xotanispawn

It is a dark, desert night, with only a sliver of moon in the sky. Owl has positioned himself over one hundred feet from the horses and has remained perfectly still for over three hours, waiting.

Yet despite the darkness and distance, it is the elven archer that first notices the horses’ behavior, whinnying and kicking their hooves nervously. Silently, he reaches for an arrow from his quiver.

Obedience Fletcher, sitting atop a magical perch floating fifty feet above the desert floor, is the second to notice the horses’ jitters. As he pulls an arrow from his own quiver, he sees the sand near the southernmost horse begin to shift and dance.

The monster erupts from the ground with speed and savagery. It is indeed larger than an elephant, a black beetle glowing with an inner, molten furnace. The horses rear and scream as Obe and Owl almost simultaneously pull back their bowstrings.

Session 138: Deeper into the Guilds

Sabine finds the purple-haired gnome in her office that morning. She greets her with a concerned smile.

“Ah, Sabine. Did you come all alone? How did you make it through the city?”

Sabine swallows, the scaled skin on her neck moving. “It was not easy,” she says in a whisper.

Exavisu sighs and picks up a scroll where she has clearly either taken notes or someone else’s notes have been given to her.

“The news on you is not good, Sabine. As I mentioned in your sending spell, you are indeed wanted by the Zephyr Guard for murder of a Dean of the College of Dimensional Studies. Many people saw you enter with a student there, a human woman named Parnoosh who has since gone missing. Parnoosh told the Zephyr Guard and other bystanders that you had convinced her that whatever had you banned earlier from the College was a misunderstanding. The student said that you asked an audience with the Dean, a longtime instructor named Behfar, and that Parnoosh was totally fooled by your,” she clears her throat, “treachery. Once in Behfar’s office, the student said that you produced a poisoned dagger and said you were seeking vengeance for being banned from the school.

“Unfortunately, many people saw you enter with Parnoosh, and several said that the student was inconsolable afterwards, with Behfar dead by poison and you nowhere to be found. It looks quite bad, I’m afraid.

“Behfar was considered a government official. Do you know the laws of Katapesh, Sabine? Murder of a guild member, Zephyr Guard, or government official is punishable by execution. No trial. You will be killed on sight.”

“What is the crime for killing someone else?” Sabine asks, aghast.

Exavisu waves. “Not as severe. Six months in prison, a fine, and an official warning. The point is that you cannot show your face on the streets of Katapesh. Ever.”

Session 139: Piroozan and Wahar

The goblin mage Piroozan is leaving with the last dregs of the crowd, in a group of a half dozen stadium attendees. It doesn’t look like he’s with the others, just part of the crowd. As always, he’s looking shifty and sinister, bulbous head in a broad red hood, orange eyes darting left and right.

He looks in Jethro’s direction and eyes widening when he sees Margaret. He charges the ratfolk paladin.

“Oh! The Skewer Rat! Now that is a turn of events I didn’t anticipate. You made me a handsome fortune against that plague giant, yes. Tell me something, if you would…” He reaches into his cloak.

…may I have your autograph?” And he pulls out a large dagger, the sheath of which is marked up with all sorts of writing on it. At first you think they’re runes, but as you get closer you see they are scrawled signatures.

“Do you have an inkwell and quill? If not, I’m sure I can find one.”

Session 140: Duneshaker

“And now, it is time for the main event,” the same goblin barker you remember from earlier in the week screams into his brass megaphone. “It is a special day, everyone. Though a newcomer to our rings, the Skewer Rat has clearly become a favorite. Earlier this week, she singlehandedly defeated a giant many times her size without even breaking a sweat! And she is not alone this time! The Skewer Rat has brought friends, including a veteran of the Coliseum: The Black Bear! And she brings newcomers! Archer, Scarface, and Goldeneyes!” The crowd roars all around you like a physical thing, pounding you from all sides.

“And our Skewer Rat will need the support, because we have a beast unlike anything seen in this ring for one hundred years! After destroying two villages in southern Katapesh, the Aspis Consortium has captured and delivered a legendary behemoth to our midst. Be afraid, because it is time to unleash… the DUNESHAKER!”

Musclebound men and women who are clearly slaves have chains attached to the giant metal grate in the center of the gladiator ring. They strain and pull, digging their feet into the sandy floor. With the sounds of the crowd raining down, the grate slides to the side.

Just then, robed figures all around the perimeter of the stands raise their arms and begin chanting. Sabine sees clearly what they are doing. A dozen or more mages are casting Wall of Force to encircle the perimeter, where the coliseum walls end and the stands begin, protecting the crowd.

When the grate is fully pulled aside the slaves run, sprinting to an open door that closes behind them with a heavy boom. The audience grows silent, holding their collective breath.

You all hear the rattle of something enormous, and true to its name the ground shakes and a giant insect begins pulling itself from the hole. It looks like this.

“Place your bets, place your bets! The heroes against the mythical Duneshaker! It is the thing of legends, ladies and gentlemen! Who will prevail?”

Session 141: Challenging Sand Claws

“Welcome back to the Grand Coliseum in majestic Katapesh, City of Trade. Listen to that crowd roar! What do you think of our feature match so far, Statler?”

“Thanks Waldorf. It’s been a bit one-sided, if I’m honest. The Street Rat has brought a mighty force with her into the ring, two spellcasters, an archer, and of course the mighty Black Bear. It seems the legendary Duneshaker we were promised is overmatched.”

“Yes, the entire group seems to be levitating, keeping the Duneshaker from knocking them down with its very movement. How did they know to cast that spell from the very start?”

“It’s a mystery, Waldorf. And their ability to attack it from distance while the Black Bear and Skewer Rat engage it in melee is making short work of the beast.”

“Yes yes. And spells to enlarge the Skewer Rat and Sarenrae cleric to match the Duneshaker’s reach, Statler, and even more spellcasting to the entire group to make them attack almost faster than we can track! It seems we’ll all be going home early tonight.”

“On one hand, it’s the most impressive gladiator team we’ve seen in memory. Surely the city will be talking about them tomorrow.”

“Yes yes, but on the other hand, we’re denied any drama, Statler!”

“Well, the Duneshaker has blinded the cleric and injured the immensely popular Black Bear. Perhaps there’s drama left, eh Waldorf?”

“Perhaps, Statler, but I think this may be over before it’s even begun.”

“We shall see.”

“I suppose we shall. Now look!”

Session 142: The Ibis Fountain

Obedience Fletcher watches from his perch atop a marketplace roof, the noontime sun pressing onto his neck and shoulders. Under the brim of his hat, his red eyes watch the four figures below, at the edge of the market square.

Two Zephyr Guards, the city’s police force, are talking to merchants, buyers, and passerbys. Their bright attire–purple, turquoise, and blue robes and headscarves–make them easy to pick out of the crowd, as do the heavy crossbows slung across their backs and curved scimitars hanging from their belt sashes.

One of the Zephyr Guard, a dark-skinned, human woman, holds a parchment with some sort of face on it, and she’s pointing bystanders to it and asking questions. Everyone is shaking their heads and edging away.

Perhaps it is the other two figures causing the crowd’s unease. Nearly ten feet tall, their bodies are made entirely of what looks like burnished brass. Bright azure light leaks from every joint and crack, visible even in the bright noontime sun. They move stiffly, clearly automaton constructs rather than living beings.

Obe has heard whispered rumors of the aluum, the construct guards used by the elusive Pactmasters to guard their palace. Aluum are animated in part by a trapped soul within their breastplate. Yet rumors also talk about the spiritbound aluum, the elite entities used to quell riots or assassinate enemies of the state. These aluum have dozens of souls trapped within them, usually criminals whom the Pactmasters wish to deny accessing the Great Beyond. Obe’s gut tells him that, without a doubt, he is viewing two spiritbound aluum entering the square.

His eyes flick to the Ibis Fountain. Jethro and Margaret are there, also watching the figures with wariness. Sabine, it seems, has disappeared.

Obe looks back at the aluum, studying them. Suddenly both pairs of eyes flash blue brightly. Then, in unison, the two aluum turn to the Zephyr Guard. Each raises a fist faster than Obe would have thought possible and crushes it into the guard, and each human crumbles to the ground, stunned.

Someone in the square screams and the marketplace square erupts in pandemonium.

Session 143: Making Plans

Someone at the lead of what is becoming a mob, bolder than the others, turns to Jethro. “You and your companions have saved many lives today, priest. Though you are clearly not from Katapesh, you speak for Sarenrae. Who is responsible for this madness?”

Session 144: Toilday Morning

The groups wakes in darkness, hours before dawn.

It is only Sabine Sterling that had a dreamless night, arriving only two hours ago from her conversations with The Seer, Jumpy the halfling necromancer, and the artificer Dariyadel.

Margaret Arodeni, of course, has experienced a night plagued by her patron, vague whispers of victory and power in absolute darkness while bees spiraled over her naked body, submerged below the neck.

Glennhal Grandyr has dreamed of himself as a giant, rainbow-colored owl, carrying the camel Duneshadow in his claws as he soars over the nighttime desert.

Jethro Vermillion has woken from an uncomfortable dream of sex with a golden-masked, elf-eared woman in white robes.

And finally, Obedience Fletcher has dreamed of hunting red-feathered, flightless birds with his bow alongside the gnome Samineh, both riding stags with huge antlers and leather armor.

Session 145: Versus Sand Claws

Sabine Sterling glimpses Uri Zandivar deep within the Red Pyramid, scribbling furiously, and then her eyes snap open. It is not the face of Sabine we see, but instead a middle-aged human woman, three scars running horizontally, one above her eye and two below. For a moment that no one sees, the disguise flickers as Sabine recovers from her spell. She blinks and rediscovers her surroundings.

Everywhere, the Grand Coliseum crowd roars like a dragon. She fights the urge to cap her hands over her ears it is so loud. To her immediate right, two men are screaming Sand Claws’ name, clearly drunk and jostling Sabine. To her left is a young boy with a wicker Skewer Rat doll clutched in his small fist. His mother is trying to speak to him, but the crowd swallows her words. He stares, wide eyed and lost in the moment, down below.

Sabine follows his gaze. There are his companions, Margaret with her sword drawn and shield raised, Owl with his bowstring pulled tight to his cheek, and Jethro, whose eyes shine golden even in daylight. The three look impossibly small on the arena floor, surrounded by the cacophonous arena.  

Sand Claws looks swift and deadly, flanked by two giants whose only similarity is the third eye on each forehead, nestled between twin horns. What were these creatures? Sabine’s analytical mind begins to search the tomes she’s read to identify them.

Yet her concentration is broken by the sudden eruption of noise. Impossibly, the crowd becomes even more deafening as the combatants swing into action.

Session 146: The Wish and the Bees

The crowd emits a collective gasp as the gray-skinned giant steps out of the shadows and swings her bladed instrument into Jethro Vermillion.

From across the arena floor, Margaret Arodeni spins to see Jethro’s enormous, glowing form crumple to the sand. He falls to lay next to Owl, who looks like a discarded puppet amidst the giants surrounding him.

“Ha!” Sand Claws whoops. “You are alone now, Skewer Rat.”

In her platemail, shining in the sun, Margaret sees the shadow yai sneer over Jethro’s body. She sees the huge, fur-covered bowman pull back his bowstring even as his summoned mantis clicks its mandibles. Sand Claws clashes her twin kukri together, spinning and dancing in for the attack.

Session 147: New Faces

We see Jethro standing over Margaret’s corpse, hands raised as he projects the last words of his eulogy. Sand Claws’ bee-swarmed body lies off to one side. The cleric looks fatigued and bloodstained.

From the arena floor we pan up, slow motion, to a small, young Kellish woman with long black hair, wearing a simple white chemise, embroidered with a red triangle. She sits still, her hands clenched, eyes wide. Everyone’s faces around her are white and terrified, clinging to every word from the Sarenrae cleric below. The young woman’s body trembles, her own face ashen.

We fade out.

We fade in on Glennhal Grandyr, the man known as Owl. He stands on the bloody sand of the arena floor, seemingly oblivious to everything going on around him. His weapons, buckler, and pieces of armor lay at his feet as he carefully, almost reverently, unfastens the remnants of his armor. Eventually he stands in only the sweat-stained, green cloth beneath. His large, yellow eyes scan the items arrayed around his now-bare feet.

He looks up to the blue sky, a dome above the Grand Coliseum, his face inscrutable.  

Behind him, in the distance, we see Hajir, the Black Bear, sprinting towards Margaret’s body with a parade of gladiators behind him, tears streaking his cheeks.

Our scene shifts back to the Kellish woman, still shaken, standing from her seat in the arena.

Now she is exiting the front gates. She passes a knot of people yelling and arguing, everyone angry. One voice rises above the others.

“No! We are not honoring any bets placed on the match! There was no winner. No winner! Take your money and go! No bets honored today! Take it up with the Pactmasters if you must! Out! Get out!”

The woman passes Owl outside the Coliseum, still standing only in his shift. Jethro has a hand on his shoulder and is talking fervently with him. Sabine stands nearby in her scarfaced disguise, lips pressed tight and eyes haunted. Owl gently removes the cleric’s hand, shakes his head, and turns his back on his companions. He leaves the pair at the front gates of the arena, walking in the same direction as the young woman. Jethro is yelling something we cannot hear as the sound warbles confusedly in our shot.

Our scene shifts again back to the woman, now wandering through the streets of Katapesh. She is blank-faced as a street vendor speaks to her but the sound of our image is still distorted.

Finally the vendor’s voice cuts through. “Do you want the red thread? Which red?”

The woman blinks, suddenly aware of her surroundings. “The burgundy. Sorry, I lost myself for a moment.”

The vendor replies, “That’s alright lady. You look like you need a rest.”

“Yes, a nap… the mending can wait.”

Our scene fades back on a now empty Grand Coliseum. Only Sand Claws’ body remains, untouched where it fell. From the hips up it is an unrecognizable mass of raw flesh. Several dozen bees and wasps still cling to the meat and a cloud of the insects buzzes overhead in a cloud.

Our camera zeroes in on one buzzing wasp as it pulls away from the swarm. The wasp flies up and over the arena walls, off into the fading sunset over the city.

The scene shifts to Jethro, Sabine, and Obe standing in an alleyway. Obedience Fletcher, stone-faced, listens while his two companions explain the events of the afternoon. The sky beyond the alleyway is a deep orange and red. The camera zeroes in on the red…

As the camera pulls back, we see our young Kellish woman in a red nightgown in a small dwelling filled with cloth, thread, and various sewing implements. She lays her head down, eyes wide. She drinks a concoction, and slowly drifts off just as the sunlight fades from a nearby window.

Black.

In the blackness, we hear a buzzing sound.

We’re now above the city, a close-up view of a wasp flying. In the distance, the Red Pyramid.

The wasp flies closer, approaching a small, sand-colored building near the pyramid. It zips through a window left ajar, and our camera follows it. Inside we see the small seamstress lying asleep in her red nightgown, beneath a light sheet. The wasp flies up to her pillow, lands, and walks up to her face. It pauses for a moment, before climbing inside the woman’s nose.

A long moment passes.

The woman stirs.

Her body suddenly bucks, her back arches.

She screams. “No!”

Her body begins shaking as though being thrown about from the inside out.

“No!” She screams in desperation.

Then from her mouth comes another voice. Beautiful. Ancient. Otherworldly.

“Quiet my dear Sahba. Let mamma take over.”

“No!”

Her body buckles, we hear joints crack and pop. Simultaneous voices emerge from her mouth. Screams of pain. Laughter. Cackling laughter.

Session 148: A Deadly Poison

Jethro is ushered by Aldane’s personal physician, a halfling named Doctor Remie, to the guildmaster’s bedroom. The room reeks of the pungent sweat of illness, and Jethro finds the obese guildmaster laying in soaked sheets, his face shining wetly. He is panting.

“Who is there? Is that my raptor?”

“He keeps asking for this raptor,” Dr. Remie says. “Do you know what that might be about?”

“He is confused,” she explains. “And seems to be having waking nightmares, something about fires and dangerous beasts.” And then Aldane begins screaming.

Session 149: The Golden Serpent

Down by the southern dock district is the Scorpion’s Sting, a surprisingly easy-to-find base of operations for Hahcuss Hrann. Whereas the poisoner storefronts are part of the Nightstalls, and thus inherently difficult to find, the guild headquarters is well known. It is a testament to how much poison and drugs are a part of everyday life in Katapesh.

The Scorpion’s Sting is a large tent whose sides are embroidered with stylized scorpions. Inside, the tables that line its interior walls are covered in jars, bowls, bottles, vials, and pouches of powders, pastes, soluble tablets, liquids, and dust. Some of them are vile smelling, others pleasantly fragrant, while still others are completely odorless.

There, working with several assistants, is Hahcuss Hrann. At the guild gathering he wore somewhat fine clothes, but now he is decked out in soiled workclothes and leather gloves, wearing protective goggles.

“Ah! So you survived the night after all! Good. I have been working on your mysterious poison. Only one breakthrough yet, but progress. Any new symptoms or insights, my young man?”

Session 150: The Council of Guilds

[not technically the intro, but the end of the session]

Uri stands. He is tall, handsome, imposing… easily the most impressive human you’ve seen in your life, his presence rivaling that of even the dragon Veshumirix.

“Honored Pactmasters,” he nods his head. “To my guildmaster friends and colleagues. These are grievous accusations.

“Yet I would ask that you consider the source of these accusations. They are a band of bloodthirsty mercenaries, sent from another continent, with no respect for Katapesh laws. Let us examine them closely.

“Their spellcaster has murdered a Dean of the College of Dimensional Studies for seemingly no reason and with no connection to the Scarlet Triad. When found, she should be executed immediately by the laws of the city.

“Their champion of Iomedae spoke of virtue and honor. Yet when bested in fair combat in the Grand Coliseum by the Gladiator Guild’s guildmaster Sand Claws, the creature vomited a torrent of demonic bees to consume her. Thousands witnessed it.

“I have in my possession a seemingly endless list of murders in several countries. Scarlet Triad agents slaughtered en masse. Property destroyed. Government officials coerced. And the common threads are a priest of Sarenrae and a mysterious genteel goblin assassin.

“They have not only killed Sand Claws. Aldane Zulran lies dead. The honorable Imperial Union of Breeders is not even present today as a result. They say I killed him. Yet who has been staying at his compound? The pattern here is obvious.

“It is clear this band of mercenaries wishes to do me and my organization harm. They have grievances. Yet when they entered the city of Katapesh, did they seek an audience with me? No. All saw their archer in the Grand Coliseum fire an arrow into the crowd at me, a clear assassination attempt.

“By the gods, look at them!” He points to the Spirit of Vengeance and Ogrin. “These are not forces of justice. They are monsters and murderers. They are agents of chaos and death.

“I have operated within Katapesh for decades now. Lawfully. I have provided protection and goods to support the guilds and commerce. I have profited and used those profits to strengthen the city. Never have I acted against the Pactmasters or their laws. Meanwhile, this band of monsters has done nothing but spit in the Pactmasters’ eyes. It cannot stand. Not only am I innocent of these claims, but I recommend these creatures be banished from our fair city immediately. Let the reign of chaos and murder end. Let the will of Abadar reign. Thank you.”

There is a moment of silence as everyone looks around the room.

It is Alager Jermell, head of the Farmers’ Union, who clears his throat and stands.

“You have NOT provided protection, Uri. The Farmers’ Union begged you for help when our caravans were ravaged outside the city. You did nothing. These outsiders risked their lives to end the threat that you ignored.

Hajir stands. “Sand Claws was a Scarlet Triad plant. She threatened to destroy the gladiators guild and no one loved her. The Skewer Rat will always be a hero within the ranks of the gladiators for killing her within the arena. The Skewer Rat was noble and pure.”

Hahcuss Hran stands as Alager sits. “They did not kill Aldane. It was a hired poisoner, the same poisoner that looked to kill the priest there. I did the diagnosis myself.”

Exavisu stands. “You operate within Katapesh laws and seek to protect us? To strength the guilds? How dare you, sir. My enslavement and auction reveal your lies!”

Huena Ilvos stands. “Hm. Evidence has come to light that perhaps the elven sorcerer did not in fact kill Dean Behfar. If the Scarlet Triad seeks to impugn the lawfulness of these outsiders, I would not include the incident at the College of Dimensional Studies. I have instructed the Zephyr Guard as such.”

Jelek Jaziman is whispering fiercely into Uri’s ear. Uri is watching the proceedings with a grim frown. Eventually he pushes Jelek away and silences him with a gesture.

Eventually, the Pactbroker Hashim ibn Sayyid stands and raises his hands for silence.

“The motion has been made. Should the Pactmasters formally censure the Scarlet Triad? Doing so will result in fines and the revocation of special protections. It is time to vote. Because of the severity of this motion, the Pactmasters require two-thirds majority, or eight votes of yes.”

Exavisu leans over to you, “This is unusual. I am less confident than I just was.”

“Uri Zandivar has made a counter-motion. If the current motion fails, we will consider the motion of banishing Jethro Vermillion and his colleagues.

“The Imperial Order of Breeders, not present, will abstain.”

“The Jewelers’ Guild votes yes.” Exavisu Kerndallion

“That is one vote in favor.”

“The Fleshmonger Federation votes no.” Sehtba al-Izora

“That is one vote in favor. One against.”

“The League Of Peshmongers abstains.” Treman “Spikeface” Ulkulratu

“The Carpenter’s Guild abstains.” Torbin Dooly

Alager Jermell makes a disgusted sound. “The Farmers’ Union votes yes.”

“That is two votes in favor. One against.”

“The Fraternal Order Of The Anvil votes yes.” Pardu Zelver

“That is three votes in favor. One against.”

“Um. Yes. The Gladiators’ Guild, uh, votes yes.” Hajir

“That is four votes in favor. One against.”

“The Order Of Alchemists And Potion Makers abstains.” Okztrok

“The Poison Makers’ Guild votes yes.” Hahcuss Hran.

“That is five votes in favor. One against.”

“The Guild Of Bakers And Butchers votes yes.” Stral looks fearfully at the Spirit of Vengeance.

“That is six votes in favor. One against.”

“The League Of Upright Barristers votes yes.” Huena Ilvos

“That is seven votes in favor. One against.”

All eyes swing to Sedrani Vashnarstill. For a moment she seems to savor the attention, the corner of her mouth twitching up. She looks at Obedience Fletcher with those unreadable, dead eyes as she speaks.

“The Guild Of Street Sweepers And Dung Carters votes yes.”

The Pactbroker looks back at the Pactmaster in attendance, who nods once.

“It is done. The motion passes. The Scarlet Triad is hereby censured. All special protections and boons extended to the Scarlet Triad are rescinded. The organization may still operate within the city, but attacks against them are against private citizens only.”

There is a brief time of pandemonium as everyone in the council hall begin talking at once. Exavisu, Alager, and others are calling for the Scarlet Triad to be held accountable for their failings and crimes. Jelek, several people in the gallery including the large Aspis Consortium representative, are yelling about injustice.

Uri Zandivar stands. “May I speak, Pactbroker?”

The Pactbroker calls for order and raises his hands. He holds this pose and, over the course of about a minute, everyone calms down and grows quiet. The Pactbroker nods to Uri.

Uri has a light sheen of sweat but is otherwise poised and confident. A small sneer crosses his face as he speaks.

“To say I am disappointed by today’s vote is an understatement. You all have been deceived by lawless bandits, erasing decades of support and services from the Scarlet Triad. The moral hypocrisy of many guildmasters here, peddling their own sinister wares, is difficult to stomach.

“So I am announcing the Scarlet Triad’s departure from the city of Katapesh, effective immediately. We will seek more enlightened and welcoming allies elsewhere.

“It will take us several days to move from the Red Pyramid, and with these murderous outlaws hunting us I fear for my and my organizations’ safety. In addition, I fear for the safety of my guests within the Red Pyramid, including Pactmaster Tsandarkon, who began staying with us two days’ hence.”

The Pactmaster in the back stands abruptly. Uri’s eyes do not leave the Pactmaster.

“I am sure everyone wishes us all the utmost safety in this transition given our decades of service to the city. Let us all get through our departure without incident or… bloodshed.”

Several guildmasters stand, outraged, and begin advancing on Uri and the Pactmaster in the back claps once. Everyone falls silent.

The Pactbroker looks back and then stands. “The Pactmasters command that no one intervene in the Scarlet Triad’s exit of the city for three days. Uri Zandivar has three days to leave the city and return all guests unharmed. It is law.”

Uri nods once and heads for the exit in a rush, Jelek Jaziman at his heels.

Chaos again erupts in the Council chamber.

“This meeting is adjourned!” The Pactbroker yells into the noise.

The Pactbroker makes a beeline for Jethro. “Gather your companions and follow me, please.”

He brings you to a back room, spacious but not lavish. There is the Pactmaster from the Council meeting and another, with the same robes but in a different color.

“You are in the presence of Pactmasters Angruul and Morvithus. The honor that they bestow upon–”

“There is no need for that, Hashim” one of the Pactmasters says. Its voice is otherworldly, synthesized, and non-binary.

“We have always known that Uri Zandivar was a snake, but his imprisonment of our colleague is an unexpected gambit. We learned of his disappearance just before the Council meeting and had suspicions but no proof. Now that we know the situation, we wish to enlist your aid. I believe our goals are in accord.

“The city is under order to leave the Scarlet Triad alone. We must stand back and give Uri his chance at escape. But you, as he so forcefully argued, are outsiders with a grudge against him.

“We ask that you raid the Red Pyramid. Now. Before their defenses are set. Do whatever damage you wish to the Scarlet Triad. Destroy it utterly if you wish. Kill Uri Zandivar if you wish. But recover Pactmaster Tsandarkon unharmed. Do this, and there will be no repercussions of your actions from the city and you will be well rewarded for your service.”

AoA Session Intros: 122-135

[Author’s note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. After writing only the occasional cut-scene, I decided to do a quick narrative before every Pathfinder session instead of a recap. We already had someone in the group writing recaps, so mine felt redundant, and there were too many opportunities for fiction writing that I was letting pass me by. Below are a collection of intros from our sessions. I don’t love using present tense, but it’s what fits best into these tabletop roleplaying sessions.]

Session 122: Transitions

We begin with a montage of scenes all in silence. We see Jethro Vermillion, wings spread wide, standing with charred bones all around him, his golden eyes looking down on the injured form of Coxsackie. Obedience Fletcher stands at his side. Jethro kneels, hands glowing, and the goblin’s eyes flutter open.

We see a group of Sunknights gathered around Jacques du Tank, all wide-eyed and talking over each other, gesturing wildly. The wounded, blind, and weary champion is ignoring them as he turns to look with sightless eyes out over the field of bones. We see beyond the field the distant forms of Jethro, the two goblins, Margaret, and Sabine walking away, headed south. Jacques’ mouth is set in a grim line.

We see our five heroes picking their way across a path churned from thousands of skeletal feet. Scattered every so often is a stray bone or scrap of armor. Obedience is pointing out a grisly splatter of blood and gore along the path as the others look on.

We see the same heroes moving up low foothills. In the background lies a broken cart laying on its side. On the horizon, the sun is low in the sky and near sunset.

We are now in a dungeon of some kind. Margaret steps forward in the darkness and spikes leap from the walls, clattering against her shield and armor. Sabine is saying something we can’t hear as she studies the many glyphs on the walls.

Still in the dungeon, we see the party battling two skeletons. One is Dmiri, the hobgoblin leader of the Bloody Blades from Book 1, scraps of flesh hanging off her bones. The other is the plate-armored figure named Law from our side quest session, the only reason we know it is a skeleton is because the full suit of plate is shattered below one elbow, a skeletal arm protruding, and of course that purple glow of undeath from within Law’s helmet. And finally, we are in a square stone chamber. A stone dais, covered in runes, sits in the middle of the room. Atop the dais is a long, curved dagger pulsing with violet light to the rhythm of a heartbeat. You all are there, and sound returns to the scene, a low hum of power in the chamber.  

Session 123: Into Duskgate

As you step through the gold and silver curtain of mist, you enter a remarkable place. The rooms within the waystation are tall, perhaps 15 feet tall at the walls, with delicately arching ceilings that peak at a height of 20 feet at their centers. The walls are magically-smoothed hewn stone decorated with shallowly carved friezes, fading frescos, or intricate mosaics consisting of thousands of precisely cut tiles in a breathtaking display of artistry and detail.

The entire place radiates dim lighting, as if lit by the setting sun, but other than the curtain of mists, there is no obvious source for the illumination.

Session 124: The Duskgate Waystation

[player-written intro]

Session 125: Promise of Fire

A town is burning, its residents running with arms shielding their heads. The sky is a deep red and black, choked with smoke and crackling with bright red lightning. Along with the sounds of flames and human terror, there is a low rumble punctuated by larger crashes and booms. In the first few moments, you can’t tell what these other noises are, but then an enormous boulder the size of two humans, glowing red and trailing flames, hurtles out of the sky and hits a single story building a block away.

It is Jethro who first notices the fountain, cracked and charred, maybe fifty feet away. Recognition floods him and his golden eyes open wide.

This is not Katapesh. This is Breachill. You are standing outside the town hall, and even as understanding fills you the great structure groans and collapses. You hear cries from within.

Obe is the one who looks out and up, where normally the comforting presence of Castle Redemption stands sentinel. But there is no castle there. In its place is a volcano, scattered rubble at its base, and spewing smoke, ash, and molten fragments into the sky.

Session 126: Finderplain

[no intro]

Session 127: Help For Finderplain

The heavy door to the Stove and Cupboard inn booms shut, muffling the howling winds and sand outside. The five of you, crowded near the door, find yourselves in the large common room of the inn. Nearly two dozen gnomes, dwarves, and humans stare at you, a mosaic of worry, fear, curiosity, and hope.

A voice speaks out over the crowd. It is a middle-aged dwarven woman with jet black hair pulled back into a braid, showing a round, sun-worn face with long sideburns. She crosses thick arms over her chest.

“Well, we’ve let you in. But we aren’t leaving zis blace.”

Session 128: The Storm Ends

[dialogue fragments with Satla]

“Well, we’ve made some grim discoveries, I’m afraid. More than one hundred people dead or missing, though the exact number is difficult to determine because we never really knew how many people lived here. Several cargoes have gone missing as well. It’s all a mess, but it could have been a lot worse if you all hadn’t arrived. Soluk believes you were sent by Sarenrae herself. Where did you say you came from again?”

“There is an upside, though. Now we can make several committees to repair the damage and enumerate the victims. I do love committees. I’m good at planning. It’s the reason I took over as soukmaster.”

“So, you’re still determined to take on the Scarlet Triad, eh? I had rather hoped you’d stay in Finderplain, maybe live here for a few years at least. Any chance of that? We… uh. I suppose we have plenty of houses for you!”

“Alright then. One of our other grim discoveries concerns the Triad. Several days ago, Triad agents and one of Finderplain’s antiquities dealers, a gnome named Benneb, apparently engaged in a verbal altercation. There were several witnesses. As the dust storm gathered, those same witnesses saw the Scarlet Triad agents pack up and leave on the road to Katapesh, moving they said quickly, like they’d done something wrong. Benneb is one of those missing after the storm, and now we’ve found his wagon ransacked with broken locks.”

“Look, this isn’t the first time the Scarlet Triad has harassed our residents. They’re pushy negotiators, opportunists, and slavers. But the evidence looks as if they simply took Benneb! That is simply egregious! Unacceptable!”

“You can’t enslave anyone in the city of Katapesh itself, but anyone enslaved outside and brought in remains a slave by law. The Scarlet Triad has been, if rumors can be believed, abducting people more and more. There’s even a vicious rumor that they recently enslaved the head of the Jeweler’s Guild when negotiations didn’t go their way! People say the Scarlet Triad’s foreign operations have been suffering, which is making them desperate.”

“Look, we put up with all of it because the Scarlet Triad is untouchable. I mean, they operate openly out of the Red Pyramid, but because they function as a legal and legitimate consortium—and have done so for decades–they’ve got the Pactmasters’ protection. Attack the Scarlet Triad, and you’ve basically attacked the city. You’re tough, but that’s not a fight you can win.”

“But you’ve shown me something. You’re strong and capable, and maybe Soluk is right and you do have the gods behind you. So I’ll tell you how I would get rid of the Scarlet Triad. I’m a planner, remember?”

“Okay, on the first Sunday of every month, there is a Council of Guilds meeting. That meeting is where all of the major trade organizations gather, vote on new policies, punish misdeeds, and revoke charters, that sort of thing. So my thought is that if you could get the Scarlet Triad’s charter revoked at that meeting, then anything that happens to them is on their heads and the Pactmasters won’t retaliate. I’m starting to believe you could convince a camel to drink sand. So convince the guilds to stand against the Scarlet Triad! At that point, even the Pactmasters would rescind their protection… or maybe even expel the Scarlet Triad entirely. Anyway, that’s what I would do if I were you. But it’s just an idea, and who knows if it would work? There are probably other ways to get at them too.”

Session 129: Welcome to Katapesh

We begin with sitar music playing as our camera pans across a desert landscape. A line of camels is snaking their way across the sand, the sky clear and blue.

The scene shifts as the camels stop in front of an amazing sight. An enormous, cracked, headless stone torso lies half-buried in a dune. One of the torso’s arms remains attached and juts out from the sands, its granite hand hollowed around a now-missing weapon.

The music fades as we get a close up of your guide, Haleh. She unwraps her head wrap to speak, her pierced, sun-withered face now visible. It is late afternoon on the first day of your travel, and this is the first time Haleh has spoken.

“Behold Selkelas, so named because it is the word engraved on the statue’s back between its shoulder blades. None living know its origins. Legends and myths abound at to what weapon the statue held and where it is now. When we get to Katapesh, beware anyone trying to sell you the Sword of Selkelas, for you will find many such items. Come. We go.”

Session 130: Legwork for the Auction

[overheard in tavern 1]

“Some of the guildmasters need to be replaced, seriously,” one of the Scarlet Triad pair says too loudly over his beer.

“I don’t disagree, but like who?”

“That fat Breeders guy, for example.”

The second man spits his drink. “Aldane Zulran?”

“That’s the one. Imperial Union of Breeders. Led by a buffoon.”

“I don’t disagree, but why?”

“You haven’t heard? For more than a year, he’s spent a fortune trying to capture a wild camel known as Duneshadow. It’s all he talks about.”

“A… camel.”

“Exactly. Talks about it like it’s a mythical beast. Hell, maybe it is. Or maybe he’s just old and crazy.”

[overheard in tavern 2]

“What do you think of this gig coming up? The one in a few days.”

“The private event? Seems like a lot of trouble and coin spent on security. Must be something important. I wish Apsis had assigned me, actually. Sounds swanky.”

“Seems weird, though, the Scarlet Triad hiring the Aspis Consortium for security detail on their own event.”

“Why? We’ve worked together before. Loads of times.”

“Sure, but rumor is that their heavy-hitters are spread thin. A lot of them doing damage control in other lands, or dead. So they need us. That’s what Ytrim Azas says.”

“Oh yeah. Like you talk to her.”

“Fuck you. I’ve heard she’s starting to mistrust the Scarlet Triad. Expecting to get back-stabbed or undercut on payment.”

“Ytrim is a suspicious, cold-hearted bitch.” “That’s why we like her, yeah. She’s lined our pockets enough times.”

Session 131: A Conversation with Sarenrae

Jethro, you are sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, facing the bright sun of Katapesh, on the fifth straight day of prayer, when suddenly, everything around you darkens and goes quiet. It’s not a sinister darkness, but a gentle one. A simple absence of everything. A sigh of serenity and void surrounds you.

You don’t know how long you’re in that peaceful nothingness. Maybe seconds. Maybe hours. But eventually there is the flicker of light, somewhere just beyond your perception. The light grows brighter and brighter and brighter and brighter and brighter, and even though your eyes are closed you are nearly overwhelmed by the sudden, inescapable glare.

And there, in the bright glow, is a figure. It’s impossible to tell exactly, but with your eyes closed you think it may be the figure of a woman, with angelic wings and hair aflame. The brightness behind her gets so intense that it’s painful, and you feel your skin begin to burn and smell the smoke of your robes.

A voice whispers gently in your ear. “Jethro, open your eyes.”

You are sitting in your childhood home, in a sturdy chair built by a much younger Quentino Posandi. A happy flame crackles in the fireplace. The window shudders are drawn, but you get the sense it is in the wee hours of the morning.

And there, across from you, with a lopsided grin, is a woman. She is a young, lean, and dark-skinned Kelish woman in colorful robes, perched atop a stool with perfect posture. Her ears are adorned with dangling yellow gems that catch the firelight.

“Ah, that’s better. I’m pleased that we finally get this opportunity, Jethro Vermillion.”

“Get up, please. None of that here. It’s why our conversation is in such a setting, so as not to worry about such things. Let’s chat. Have a seat and be comfortable.”

“Tell me: What had you hoped to gain from these fervent prayers?” Once again she gives you that lopsided grin.

“Failed? What have you failed, Jethro? Did you not discover the secrets of the auidara in the bowels of an abandoned castle? Did you not then find a key to take you to the Mwangi Expanse, where you not only thwarted a cult to Dahak and saved an elven people but also disrupted the Scarlet Triad’s gold mining? Did you not then head to Ravounel to save countless innocents from the Scarlet Triad and free the city of Kintargo from their underground slaving efforts? Yes, you died. But did you not return, continuing your quest of truth and purity? Who of your companions has died since that return? No, I don’t see a string of failure, child.”

“So, tell me. These past days, your companions have hunted information about this auction for the missing Jeweler, an auction attended by devils and demons. Truly an evil lot, smelling of perfume and expensive oils but rotten to the core. Yet for all of their information, your companions will look to you to tell them the plan. They will follow your word. What will you tell them?”

“I will not tell you what to do, but I will say this: Imagine that you announce yourself to the Scarlet Triad, yet they are still protected by the Pactmasters. The entire city of Katapesh, all of its laws, protectors, bounty hunters, assassins, and every guild in the Scarlet Triad’s pockets bend their collective will to stop you. Thousands upon thousands against you, upheld by the laws of this land. Many innocents will die. At best you will rot in a sunless prison. At worst you will die again, painfully, and this time permanently. Either way, the Scarlet Triad’s evil runs free and Uri Zandivar plays with powers he cannot hope to control. An Age of Ashes is poised to descend upon Golarion if you fail, Jethro.”

“This auction is a tipping point, and how you handle it may determine the fate of the world.”

“That’s the wonder of mortals and their free will… no outcomes are certain by any one action. I can only advise that you approach each circumstance with compassion, generosity, mercy, and honesty. Perhaps honesty most of all. Let the light of truth guide your way, Jethro. For a word of truth spoken at the right time can do more good than any sword. Or, I suppose in your case, fireball.”

“Ah, which reminds me. Do you still have that necklace?”

She rolls it around in her hands, and her eyes twinkle. “Mengkare’s Roar. That’s a good name, is it not? Mengkare is a powerful gold dragon, very powerful. Well. Here you are.” She hands it back, with two bright golden beads.

“Jethro, one last thing, and forgive me if this sounds somewhat contrary to our conversation to this point. Sometimes words fail, even if truthfully given. And in those cases, the best battle is a battle you WIN. If you die, you can no longer fight. Fight fairly when the fight is fair, and” she looks Jethro directly in the eye, “STRIKE QUICKLY AND WITHOUT MERCY WHEN IT IS NOT.”

“Now,” she stands gracefully, smoothing out her robes with long-fingered hands. “May the light of truth shine within you, Jethro Vermillion. And let’s hope we can talk again sometime. Good luck, child.”

There is a flash, and for the briefest of moments you see that angel-winged figure with the flaming hair, an impossibly bright radiance drowning out everything. And in that briefest of moments, you feel the skin burned from your bones by that radiance. And then the moment passes, and you open your eyes to the bustling street sounds of Katapesh. It is sunset, the golden rays of sun bathing your perch.

Session 132: The Ambush

Orand laughed into the night, a dry, raspy laugh.

“I will tell you something, my friend. Evil? We are not evil. We are members of the Scarlet Triad, a legitimate consortium in the city of Katapesh. The slaves we have are legitimate property, and we are on our way to a legitimate auction of our property. Everything we do is legal in the eyes of the Pactmasters and the city.”

“Evil? You are the ones breaking the city’s laws. What we do we do for profit. Katapesh is a city for profits. You cannot say the same.”

“So I will give you until the count of three to move your barricade or we will kill every one of you. One…”  

Session 133: The Jeweler and the Djinni

[no intro]

Session 134: Margaret the Skewer-Rat

Margaret, is in the section of the Grand Coliseum where the gladiators get ready, pray to their gods, throw up or urinate with nerves, and bleed out after matches. To say it smells rank is a vast understatement.

You are checking the straps of your armor and shield. What else are you doing as your fight draws near?

A muscled, middle-aged human man with a pitch-black beard that is so large and thick that it seems like a black hole covering his neck and upper chest approaches you. You met this man yesterday and know him as a veteran of the Gladiators’ Guild, but you never got his name.

“Ser Margaret. Please, forgive me. I do not wish to interrupt. I only wanted a word before you enter the arena. When you are able.”

“I am Hajir. Out there I am known as the Black Bear, heh. I have been fighting in this arena for a long while.”

“Times, they are not good for the gladiators. Our guild leader, the Sand Claws, she attempts to make the fights as deadly as possible for the entertainment of the crowd. The crowds are no doubt larger than before, but the gladiators are fewer, eh? Those of left fear for our lives.”

“In you I see a true champion. Do well today, and I believe you will be asked to the main event on Sunday. Do well there, mmm, and perhaps you can challenge Sand Claws herself. I see you fight. I see her fight. It would be a close thing, but I believe in you. We,” and he looks around and you realize that many eyes are on your conversation. Hard-scrabble warriors of all ancestries and age are watching. “We believe in you. May your gods bless you today.”

You walk about to a roar of cheers. The arena is about half-full, which you’re led to believe is really good for one of the warm-up acts before the headliner of the day.

A voice is echoing across the arena floor, and you peer around and locate a goblin in lavish robes speaking into what basically amounts to a brass megaphone.

“And here she comes, Ser Margaret, the Rodent of Valor! Such an impressive display only yesterday and is back for more!”

“Now that we know of Ser Margaret’s fierce prowess in battle, we have arranged a more formidable opponent. And I think you’ll find it quite appropriate.”

An enormous iron gate begins lifting on the other side of the arena. A giant steps out into the light. He looks like an enormous beggar, tattered hood and cloak covering dirty skin. But as the light hits him you realize two things. First, he is draped in chains beneath the cloak. Second, it isn’t dirt all over him, it is open, weeping sores. He’s dragging behind him an enormous flail, and looks like this.

“You all know that rats bring pestilence to any city, so we were able on short notice to find a fighter who is a plague giant. Will the rat or the pestilence win? Place your bets, children of Abadar, and let’s find out!”

[Parnoosh]

Parnoosh is a doe-eyed young half-elf woman dressed fashionably in bright colors. “Ah, Sabine! I am glad you’ve returned. I so enjoyed our conversation yesterday. What is it you want to discuss today?”

The two talked of elven lore, dimensional portals, and the college. Parnoosh seemed rapt with attention, asking questions and generally fascinated with the dragonscaled sorcerer. Eventually, after long hours, the conversation turned to Sabine’s true purpose: An audience with Parnoosh’s mentor, a Dean of the College of Dimensional Studies.

“You wish to meet Behfar?” she makes a sour face. “But he is so old and trapped in history. Antiquated. Not like you, Sabine, a true student of the world who wishes to experience life rather than read about it. You will learn nothing from that dusty, white-haired fool. Let us just keep meeting, you and I.”

But Sabine insisted that her earlier visit to the school had created such a negative impression that she felt the need to vindicate her image. She wanted only to show that she, too, was a scholar who could both learn and contribute a great deal to the college.

Parnoosh stared long and hard at Sabine, her eyes narrowed. Something seemed to be turning in her brain, and that something eventually clicked into place. In a flash, the large eyes returned and her smile was radiant.

“I see. Of course, Sabine. I will arrange a meeting for tomorrow. We will go see Behfar together. I’ll be there to ensure you are not misunderstood this time. And you, you will find your redemption.”

A smile curled at Parnoosh’s lips briefly, and Sabine couldn’t help but think it mischievous. Then they were saying their goodbyes and setting a time to meet. Sabine, for her part, felt as if once again she had missed something socially important in this strange, foreign city.

Session 135: Parnoosh and Duneshadow

Sabine, meets Parnoosh outside of the college. She is, as always, bright-eyed and eager to see you, giving you a hug when you arrive.

“Are you sure you still want to see the Dean today, Sabine? We could just talk as we’ve done the past two days. Behfar is such a bore.”

“Alright, then. Let us go and see if you might improve your reputation here at the College.”

She takes your hand and leads you past the college entryway. You’ve been here before, but she tugs at the sleeves of your robe and leads you more deeply, through the winding halls and up curved staircases. You see a dozen things you might want to explore, including a painting that might have been of an auidara and a glass-walled library filled with books and maps.

Eventually the two find themselves in a wider hallway with marble-tiled floor, facing a large wooden door. Parnoosh takes a deep breath.

“Well, here we are. He should be expecting us,” and she knocks three times.

Parnoosh opens the door to reveal a large office. And there at a desk facing a large window is an old, white-haired man.

“Ah, Parnoosh. Yes, I had almost forgotten–” and his voice falters as he sees Sabine. “What is this? Isn’t that the woman we’ve banned?”

“Yes, Dean. She insisted on speaking with you.”

Creakily, he gets up from his chair and comes around the desk, looking worried.

“What is this? You were banned from the college!”

[while Sabine explains, Parnoosh reveals a dagger stained with some sort of black tar]

“I don’t like this, Parnoosh. You should not…”

Parnoosh’s face has transformed into a mask of hate and rage. She plunges the dagger into Behfar’s side.

“Refuse to advance me in the order, will you? Keep me an apprentice?! Die, old fool!”

AoA Session Intros: 111-121

[Author’s note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. After writing only the occasional cut-scene, I decided to do a quick narrative before every Pathfinder session instead of a recap. We already had someone in the group writing recaps, so mine felt redundant, and there were too many opportunities for fiction writing that I was letting pass me by. Below are a collection of intros from our sessions. I don’t love using present tense, but it’s what fits best into these tabletop roleplaying sessions.]

Session 111: Demons and Dead

[no intro this session]

Session 112: Small Forge, Big Forge

Margaret Arodeni’s keen, beady eyes roam over the mausoleum floor. So many weapons. So many scraps of armor. Dozens, no hundreds, of each litter the cracked stone floor. Margaret searches for the inscription of runes, something pristine amidst the piles that would suggest magic. But everything looks ravaged by age. Hammers are rusted. Axe blades are chipped and broken. Armor is pock-marked and dented. Everything in the room appears to be the refuse of a fallen army, an army that fought valiantly but had ultimately lost.

Still, Margaret holds faith in Iomedae to guide her way. She steps into the room, scanning left to right. Hundreds upon hundreds of small stone or metal urns line narrow shelves along the walls, like silent sentinels to the discarded, ruined armaments that had failed to save their dwarven hosts.

Coxsackie, ever curious, follows at Margaret’s heels. Both of their footsteps echo in the chamber.

The ratfolk paladin grunts in disappointment and opens her mouth to say something, then stops.

An axe is vibrating, wobbling on the floor. In an instant, everything on the floor is shuddering. Then, as Margaret and Coxsackie’s eyes widen, the pieces of armor and weapons begin sliding noisily towards the center of the room as if dragged by invisible hosts.

As they join in a mountainous pile, blood begins pooling. It is thicker than blood should be, more like sap or clotted gravy. And as it gathers within and between the pieces of metal and split leather, the blood takes on a solidity of form. Margaret has seen many people’s bodies torn asunder, their organs spilled onto the battlefield. That is what she is seeing now, she realizes, as if a giant has been turned inside out, its insides congealed around the axes and hammers and armor into a single, undulating mass of terror.

That mass rises, towering over the two small figures in the room.

Session 113: The Battle with Ilssrah

[player-written intro]

Session 114: Ilssrah’s End

If you’re reading this, it means that I was not in fact worthy under Droskar’s eyes and have been cast into the Dark Smith’s embrace to work tirelessly and endlessly under his watchful gaze.

I have no family with which to give my worldly possessions, nor do I have a desire to see my hard work perverted in such a way as to undo what I have managed to accomplish in my ceaseless attempts to exact revenge in the name of my god.

With that in mind, any wealth that I have obtained should be distributed to the Scarlet Triad’s coffers. I do not believe in everything Uri and the Triad do, but they have proven aligned enough to my goals to make good use of my hard-earned coin.

My weapons and armor, on the other hand, including my holy chain Fleshroaster, should be given to the duergar slave lords of Hagegraf. I hope that a champion among them will find strength in these armaments to rise up to the Five Kings Mountains and subjugate every member of the dwarven race they can find.

It is my final wish that my body be consumed in the fires of a forge, with my holy symbol adorning my corpse. It is the only possession with which I will face my god and atone for the weakness that led to my demise.

Ilssrah Embermead’s last will and testament

Session 115: Get Ready for the Dragon

The duergar slave lord that Ilssrah had called Innika scans the room, squinting in the bright light. Every single one of her allies now lies dead, dying, or destroyed, while her five opponents yet live. Impossible, yet undeniable.

She drops her longbow clattering to the stone floor.

Innika raises both hands and says to Margaret in broken common, “I surrender.”

The armored, ratfolk champion nods once and begins to sheath her sword. Coxsackie, seeing Margaret’s gesture shrugs and relaxes, the fight over.

And that is when Leilani Greyara, the curse of her mystery plain across her corpse-like, rotting features strides forward. She mutters and gestures violently toward the duergar.

Innika’s eyes go wide and she screams a pain-wracked, existential scream. Her spirit blasted from her broken body, she falls dead to the ground.

Session 116: The Dragonscarred & Kradolai

As you open the heavy iron door, the temperature rises, not dramatically but noticeably. You’re faced with a square chamber with no defining characteristics at all–no furniture, no carvings in the walls, no hint at its purpose.

You get the sense that the five skeletal figures within the chamber had been utterly still until the door opened, yet now their eyes glow with inner flame and limbs move fluidly.

Recall that in the notes from the room upstairs with the treachery demons, you discovered that the dragon Veshumirix has several guardians in his realm, including a group of valiant dwarven heroes from Highhelm who attempted to slay him 50 years ago. The notes said that Veshumirix admired their tenacity and spirit and ensorcelled their souls to guard the entrance of his lair.

These are clearly those vanquished souls. Each has the stocky dwarven build, obvious despite the lack of flesh. Each is armed and armored differently [describe], but their weapons are wreathed in identical flames. And, as I said last week, they speak with identical voices, almost like some creepy, undead hivemind.

“Who is this?”

“Not the cleric.”

“There are intruders in Veshumirix’s domain.”

“We must destroy them for our master.”

Session 117: Veshumirix

The pile of treasure shimmers and dances in the superheated air. And then, large bubbles begin to appear on the magma’s surface, expanding and popping in slow motion.

What at first you think is a large rock begins pushing out of the lava. And then it rises, up and up and up, until you are confronted with this: [show image] [roll frightful presence]

“Ah, so the cleric is dead. She saw you all as a test of her faith. Apparently it is a test that she failed. What do you want here, small ones? What quest has led to the destruction of my guardians and allies? Are you treasure hunters or simply mad for power?”

Session 118: The Queen of Saggorak

Little Margaret Arodeni, mechanically small, is flying fifteen feet above a lake of bubbling magma, her armor and longsword gleaming in the orange light. She is miniscule compared to the dragon made of molten rock, mechanically huge, directly in front of her. Veshumirix glows with an inner light, cracks in his rocky scales an eerie burnt orange. That inner glow begins to expand in the dragon’s chest as Veshumirix rears his head back, positioning his maw right before the champion of Iomedae. And then, with a roar, lava floods out in a wide cone.

[later in the session…]

When he sees the crown in Obe’s hands, everything about the room changes in subtle but noticeable ways. The graveknights step back, and you realize the vague air of menace is gone. King Harral’s face transforms, his glowing green eyes going wide.

“Ah… You, you brought it back. Despite my behavior earlier, despite my mistrust, you bring me back the crown of Saggorak. Well. That is something.”

He takes the crown reverently but doesn’t put it on his head. Those glowing eyes turn to regard each of you, lingering on Sabine longest, and eventually settling on Margaret.

“Lady Knight, I do request of you a private audience with Leilani. I vow to you on my undying protection of this city that she will not be harmed in my presence.”

When the rest of you are gone, King Harral turns the crown wonderingly in his fingers.

“Leilani Greyara. My attendant tells me you worship Pharasma, not Magrim.”

“I am not much of a theologian, truth be told. I didn’t wonder at matters of afterlife until I found myself unable to perish in the protection of this city. But I have spent countless hours since wondering and praying. Perhaps you can help me. What am I, Leilani? Am I force for Good in this dark place, or am I a perversion, shaped by its Evil?”

Session 119: Jethro’s Almost-Rise

We have a montage of scenes as you all exit Kovlar, with no Leilani Greyara but with Archmage Hromgar Nalruven, who has a travel sack brimming with scrolls. This is not an end of Return of the Jedi scene where everyone is partying and music is blaring. Instead, there is an awe to it. You have done things that only the dwarven heroes of legend have done, if rumors can be believed, and you all I’m imagining are radiating confidence and power whether you mean to or not. The entire city has turned out, all wanting to see you one last time. But as you walk from the city’s walls and into Saggorak, there is also an air of uncertainty and fear. Leilani Greyara has announced a time of change, and they don’t know what that change means for their safety.

We then see you all picking your way through the ruins of Saggorak. There are less undead than any other time you’ve been there.

Did you all want to make a last stop to see Leilani, or have you made your goodbyes?

We then see you in the bejeweled caverns outside the waystation, carefully avoiding the patches of lifeleech crystals (which Hromgar wants to investigate as you pull him along).

And finally, you are standing outside of Jewelgate, on the cavern side.

“Oh, well. This is quite exciting, indubitably. Fascinating, even. What happens next?”

***

You emerge into Alseta’s Ring, a large circular chamber with a domed ceiling. The walls and ceiling are elegantly carved with elven script. To the north are twin double doors in a squared-off column, doors that you know animate to become door wardens. In the center of the room stand six statues of elves, all facing outward and arranged around a pleasantly-burbling fountain. The statue facing you is Yuelral the Wise, the elven goddess of magic, crystals, and jewelers.

As you emerge, the person who was clearly napping on one of the western benches rolls off with a yelp and a start. He is a halfling, his hair overly oiled so that it looks sort of stylish, but actually kind of gross. He’s wearing what appear to fine clothes, but Obe’s eyes quickly pick up that they are faux imitations of nice clothes, badly rumbled. He rubs at his eyes.

“Oh Gods! You came back! On my watch! What luck!”

“Oh, right.” He rubs his palms on his pants and when he shakes yours it’s still super sweaty. “My name is Lucky, Sunknight trainee. Picked by Jacques du Tank himself at the last Call for Heroes!” “And of course I know who you are. Oh wow, Jacques is going to–Oh! Jacques! He’s going to want to see you! Well come on then! No time to wait!”

***

Lucky scampers through the citadel, and though it’s a bit of a blur what you note is that it is unusually empty. There are laborers and artisans clearly there for some kind of work, though Obe you don’t spot Amera Lang among them, and there are various people, mostly elderly and teens, sweeping or cleaning. They all startle at seeing you, gasping and freezing with hands to mouths, eyes as big as saucers. But there are no other Sunknights, no sounds of practice swords clattering together or other noises you’d become familiar with before heading through Jewelgate.

Almost before you can take it all in, you’re exiting the castle and heading down the road east towards Breachill. Suddenly, for the first time in a month, you experience… sunshine. The weather is perfect on this mid-summer day: Upper-70s, with wisps of cloud scattered across the glorious dome of blue sky overhead. I imagine that despite Lucky’s urging, you all pause for a moment a lift your faces to take in the fresh air and outdoors.

Eventually you enter town from its northeastern edge, back in Breachill. There is a mix of familiar local faces and newcomers, all going about their lives, and you’re struck at the diversity of ancestries, so different from your time underground. Those people who see you have the same reaction as those in the citadel, people jerking to a stop. Some run away to go tell friends or family members. Heads dip together, whispering feverishly. You’d felt your growing fame in this small town, but it’s on a whole new level now. It’s like people looking up and suddenly seeing Oprah Winfrey, or the Pope. As Lucky keeps jogging forward, you pass by the renovated Pickled Ear on your left and, eventually, you cross the northern bridge over Breach Creek, and out of the small town (once again, the contrast from the ruined metropolis of the 1300-person Breachill, I imagine, strikes you).

About a mile south of town you find several erected tents, flying flags with the Sunknight emblem. Standing outside one of the tents is Ik-Topis, the monk, doing forms in the sunlight. He sees Lucky and then his eyes raise to you all coming behind and he quickly ducks into the biggest tent.

Of course, you’re all distracted by what’s beyond the tents.

Thousands–and I mean thousands–of skeletons. A field of them taking up your full field of vision. They are skeletons of all sizes, all ancestries, some wearing scraps of clothes, others in tattered armor and carrying rusted weapons, and some simply bones and clawed fingers. There are animal skeletons too, horses, bears, mountain lions, and the like. Scattered here and there are larger skeletons, like the hulking brutes some of you fought in the Pickled Ear at the beginning of Book 3.

And dwarfing all of them are two enormous (mechanically Huge) zombies. They look like they might have been trolls once, but they have over a half dozen heads each crowding their shoulders, and slabs of putrefied flesh hangs limply off parts of their torsos, arms, and legs.

The skeletons and those two towering zombies are facing you, maybe a half mile away across a large grassy field. But none of them are moving. Their eye sockets glow with a violet light familiar to Obe and Coxsackie. But they are stock still.

The tent flap is pushed aside and Jacques du Tank, Betsy Jadefingers, and Ik-Topis exit it. Jacques and Betsy are armored and armed to the hilt. They don’t look like they’ve slept much in the past several days.

The wind shifts momentarily and the strong stench of rot hits you. Then it’s gone as quickly as it was there.

Session 120: Jethro’s Rise

I imagine everyone in the courtyard is panting, slightly wide-eyed at what just happened–the crazy cast of characters in a chanting circle, seeing Jethro with angelic wings for a moment before he cries out in pain and then of course him deconstructing into pieces of sunshine Tron-style–looking right into Obe’s eyes as he did!, and then of course the confused but quite scary Angel of Justice that attacked you and definitely could have killed some of the NPCs present if not for some excellent diplomacy rolls.

And as the angel fades into the daylight and as the sight returns to the eyes of those blinded, Chioma, angel of Sarenrae looks rattled. They speak in dual voices, one a lovely female soprano and another equally lovely male bass.

“I– I do not understand. The ritual should have succeeded. What could have possibly gone wrong?”

Session 121: Voz’s Last Stand

The huddle of tents, each flying the Sunknight banner, are empty and still.

The Nose is back at Castle Redemption, tending the signal fire there and likely in talks with Breachill’s town council on the situation. Octavius has taken the shift at Guardians Way.

The rest of the Sunknights are here, outside the tents, standing agape, pacing, or fidgeting as they watch, transfixed by the scene playing out before them.

An undead army shakes the ground with their advance, led by what seems to be the necromancer Voz Lirayne, though none of them had understood her to wield this kind of power.

And the newly resurrected Jethro Vermillion and his Redeemers are facing them, six against thousands.

“Jacques shouldn’t ‘a gone with them,” Betsy Jadefingers says, twirling her daggers nervously and shifting from side to side. “He’s almost dead already, and the horde isn’t even upon them yet.”

“Perhaps we should charge down into the fray! Stand with our fearless Captain, and what not?” Gerhard fondles his generous moustache with one finger, his other hand holding his blunderbuss across one shoulder.

“You’re all bluster, Pendergrast, but you know as well as I that we’d be more hindrance than help down there. We’ll be lucky if Jacques– Oh gods! He’s dropped.”

“Never fear, my dear Betsy. Jethro will save him. He’s quite good. Inspiring, isn’t it? Seeing him back?”

“Look at that champion of Iomedae charge that behemoth,” Dirk Rattlejaw rumbles. “It’s like the stuff of legends.”

“What do you think this is, boyo? The gods themselves are watching what’s happening today!”

“I say, can anyone see the goblin with the hat? It seems perhaps he’s fled. No wonder he’s survived this long, what?”

“No, he’s there. I saw a flash of him in the grass. Never imagined someone could hide in broad daylight in an open field, but it’s fucking breathtaking is what it is.”

The cacophonous roar of the multi-headed troll carries across the field. Several of the Sunknights scream. Lucky the halfling faints.

“Well, it’s come to it then. Either Jethro and his heroes end this now, or…”

“Or we’re dead, added to that bitch’s army.”

“I believe in Jethro,” Gerhard says aloud, seeming almost to surprise himself with the words. “It’s why we’re all here, what? It is the stuff of legends, Betsy. Let us all watch and appreciate what comes next.”

Second Pathfinder Web Fiction Up!

Back in September, I had the great fortune to write a piece of fiction for my current favorite game, Pathfinder 2nd Edition. The piece received good reader feedback, so I crossed my fingers that I’d be asked to write more.

Then, mid-January, Paizo reached out and said they had another writing opportunity, but it was a fast, 11-day turnaround. Was I interested?

To me, the only possible answer to this question–regardless of circumstance–is “HECK YES!” Not only is writing fantasy fiction for my favorite game tons of fun, I want to establish myself as a reliable, solid writer who is part of Paizo’s regular line-up.

So Mark Moreland at Paizo sent me the image that would be the basis for the story, along with a PDF of the upcoming sourcebook that the story was meant to promote. The image was amazing, and Mark had several notes–The beastkin looks too much like a werewolf. The lady in back shouldn’t be a zombie, but a “fetchling” (a descendant of the Shadow Plane). Don’t make the piece from the adventurer’s viewpoint. It should probably be a comedy bit, based on a mistaken belief that these helpers were monsters. Good luck. Have fun.

The art is very clearly Halloween-y, so I leaned into those themes hard in the story. Something I thought of after submitting it to Mark was that the Tricksters should have been a band of halflings, making them even more like trick-or-treaters. Anyway, I’m happy with the result, hope Paizo is too, and fingers crossed this is a path to even more Pathfinder writing.

Here is the story and art: https://paizo.com/community/blog/v5748dyo6shkl?Tales-Of-Lost-Omens-Clues-In-The-Moonlight

AoA Session Intros: 99-110

[Author’s note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. After writing only the occasional cut-scene, I decided to do a quick narrative before every Pathfinder session instead of a recap. We already had someone in the group writing recaps, so mine felt redundant, and there were too many opportunities for fiction writing that I was letting pass me by. Below are a collection of intros from our sessions. I don’t love using present tense, but it’s what fits best into these tabletop roleplaying sessions.]

Session 99: Back in Saggorak

The black-clad duergar dashes into the room on short legs, her pale eyes taking in the wall of wind across the dining hall’s doorway. She curses in Undercommon, draws her shortsword, and plunges ahead, past one of the dwarves. Wind tears at the cloth around her armor and she’s through to the other side, where the pitched battle is underway.

“The alchemist–” she begins in Undercommon, then looks to her allies, frowns, and switches to Dwarven. “The alchemist is dead. Their invisible assassin killed her with a single shot. We can’t run, so either we kill them now or die.”

“We kill them, then!” one of the dwarves bellows, and swings his flail wide over his head.

Session 100: King Harral

Sabine Sterling picks her way around the apparently former-palace of King Harral. To Sabine’s wide, yellow eyes the structure–the very stone–has been reduced to slag from extreme heat. Undoubtedly the heat of a magma dragon’s breath, she thinks. Yes, see there? Those vertical slashes in that bit of unmelted stone may very well be claw marks. She studies the place, walking slowly in her perimeter study. The moans and wails of Saggorak’s undead have faded to the background. Indeed, she is concentrating so thoroughly that she hardly notices her surroundings at all, including the other structures nearby.

So it is a great surprise when a voice interrupts. “Sabine Sterling… Seeker of knowledge and arcane lore. Wisdom hoarder. Enter this place, Sabine… Come.”

She glances around to see who else had heard the voice, but Obedience is inspecting another part of the rubble, the closest but still too far to hear a whispered voice. None of her other companions are looking up from their own inspections. Only her. Only she had heard it. And the voice had called her by name, hadn’t it?

“Come Sabine. Important knowledge. Vital. Things you must know. In here…” She examines the structure from which this beckoning call seems to be emanating. Like most of Saggorak, the stone is crumbled by age and battle, its original purpose difficult to discern. But its pillars and towering walls are impressive, and relatively untouched by whatever had destroyed the palace. And is that the image of a book in the fresco there, worn away? She takes a step forward, King Harral’s palace momentarily forgotten. What is this place?

Session 101: Dead Man’s Party

The difficult-to-discern form of Casper the wraith appears and bows low to you all.

“Honored allies. My mighty King asks that I escort you to the regalia he wore in life. It is not a long journey. Please, follow me.”

While he escorts you, anything you want to say to each other or Casper?

“Powerful magics surround the King’s regalia. It is also the site of Old King Harral’s death, and where members of his personal guard made a last stand to protect him. As a result, powerful members of the Bound guard the robes, and they will attack anyone who enters without parley or discernment.”

“Only someone with Good in their heart may wear the King’s regalia. Indeed, Old King Harral has often said it is why he has not returned to that place – for fear that his undeath has twisted him in some way so as to prevent him from even touching the robes. He often worries about such things. It says quite a bit about what he sees in you that he suggests you obtain it.”

And after some travel through the ruined streets of Saggorak, you come to a once-great manor. It is two stories, and once supported six small towers, designed to echo the architecture of a castle in miniature. One of these towers has utterly crumbled, while another has collapsed, falling across the building and heavily damaging it. In contrast to the majority of the building, the southernmost room and towers are in relatively good repair, and stone doors seal up the place in several places, though the doors only hang loosely in their frames.

“Good luck, honored allies. I shall see you when the task is done.” And with that he blinks out.

Session 102: Saggorak Poltergeists

The foyer of this haunted hall had been a welcoming place. Falsely welcoming, it turned out, yet still a brief respite from the decaying ruins of Saggorak.

Beyond the foyer, you are back to decaying ruins. The most alarming feature of this once-great hall is the shattered ceiling, where one of building’s six towers has fallen long ago, crushing the second floor and sending pieces of the ceiling everywhere. Bits of broken and desiccated furniture mix with the rubble, making the original purpose of this place difficult to discern.

You all take in the sprawling hall through black-and-white darkvision. Between cracks in the walls and doorways leaning in their frames to the outside, the screams and moans of Saggorak drift into the interior.

The party begins to fan out, Coxsackie and Margaret taking point. But then Sabine’s voice echoes within the ruins to stop, as her arcane sight takes in the room. The dragon sorcerer warns of several unseen ghosts, just as they raise their clawed hands to attack.

Session 103: The King’s Regalia

[player-written intro]

Session 104: The King’s Fury

As you exit the once-great halls of King Harral’s former residence, the outlined form of Casper appears and bows low to you all.

“Oh. My. It is– I apologize. It is difficult to find words seeing someone in the King’s regalia. I did not believe that I could be moved this long after my death. Well done, honored allies.”

And he stays silent, bowing, until you believe he may be frozen like the poltergeists inside. With his head down, though, he speaks again.

“Perhaps you will defeat the usurper after all. You are truly sent by the gods. You have my thanks and respect, and if I may say so, elf, the robes suit you. Where may I escort you now?”

Session 105: Sanctum of the Starved

“Three days.” Commander Grokar Hammersong sighs heavily and smooths his black, thick beard with a calloused hand.

“Yes sir.”

“What do you make of it, Sergeant Arna? Three days and we have heard nothing. Still believe that it means the threat is simply not yet handled? Not that they’re dead?” His thick fingers absently move from his beard to the hilt of his warhammer.

The sergeant shrugs. She still has the black line painted from the left side of her forehead, down through her eye to chin.

“It’s not as if an enemy has emerged from the tunnel either, sir. And other than the continued tension and guild skirmishes in the city, we don’t have evidence that any new acts of terrorism have occurred. So they’re not dead, I reckon.”

“Indeed. Your faith in our outsider friends remains… bolstering, Sergeant.”

“Yes sir. I try, sir.”

Hammersong’s hand strays back to his beard, smoothing it. “Still, it does not strike me as a good sign. Organize a scouting party to send in at first torch tomorrow. I want to know what’s happening out there.”

Both dwarves’ eyes are locked on the tunnel entrance within the Hidden Forge. It is a dark, rough-hewn hole into the earth. Our camera zooms slowly in on that hole until it is simply a black screen. And we pull back, with many sets of eyes locked on another dark, rough-hewn hole into the earth. But this one has old, battered ties and tracks leading into it, and the sound of moans and shrieks echoing in the air.

Session 106: Falrok Denied

Wump, wump, wump–The sound we described last time as a subwoofer–fills the mines’ caverns as a crudely-made stone golem pounds relentlessly on an invisible wall. Veins of lazurite glow along cracks and joints in the golem, filling the chamber with an eerie light akin to a blacklight.

Wump, wump, wump.

Behind the golem, swaying but otherwise still, is a skeleton so enormous its head almost touches the marrowstone ceiling. The glowing pits of its eyes roam from figure to figure, studying you all like a hungry tiger behind glass. Its huge, clawed hands flex and relax repeatedly. Whatever noise it may be making is lost behind the enchanted wall, and the constant barrage of the golem’s fists.

Wump, wump, wump.

Sabine knows that any moment her spell will have run its course, and the wall will cease to exist. And when it does, the tiger will be free.

Wump, wump, wump.

Session 107: The End of the Starved

Only minutes ago, when Sabine’s first wall of force had dropped, you all were ready for the golem and gashadokuro. As soon as the barrier disappeared, you swung into frenzied action.

This time is different. The wall vanishes with a whispering puff of magic, and the only sound rushing in to fill the space is… silence.

You’ve come to this place, deeper into the earth than you’ve ever traveled–miles below ground with tons of rock above you–to find and destroy a ghoul named Falrok. Yet last you saw he was loping deeper into the mine before he disappeared. And now, no sign of him remains.

Session 108: To the Temple

You had noticed it from a distance but not realized it was your destination until you are practically there. An enormous natural pillar of stone, maybe a full quarter mile in diameter, reaches from cavern ceiling to floor. Its enormity is difficult to comprehend until you approach, like ants walking up to an ancient redwood tree.

And built into the base of this natural stone giant is the Temple of All Gods.

Although worn by the thousands of years since its construction, Obe you see it is still a breathtaking marvel of stonemasonry. As you get closer you can make out that the façade has images of a single dwarven hero in various acts of defeating all manner of strange monsters, single-handedly building huge structures, and forging powerful weapons. A pair of curving stone stairs rise up to meet a looming iron double door in the middle of the building, and these doors are flanked by identical enormous statues of armored dwarves kneeling. All along the approach to the Temple and the colossal stone pillar, there is rubble, bloodstains, and bones that have been picked clean. Other than that, though, it is silent and empty and waiting.

Session 109: The Mukradi

As you approach, the pillar towering over you, something begins shifting all along the stairs. What you first assumed were deep shadows resolve themselves into black, chitinous scales of a gargantuan centipede as it untangles itself from the structure. It had apparently been wrapped all through the stairs, and as it moves and moves and moves you are like, holy shit how long is this thing? Then it rears up you and see that not only is it friggin’ huge, it has three giant heads.

Session 110: Temple’s First Floor

Jacques du Tank drums his fingers on the rough wood of his desk in a tuneless, distracted rhythm. His other arm lays tucked away on his lap. He doesn’t consciously realize that he hides the handless limb out of sight as if behind a shield. Yet he does, and these days his mighty shield is the large, functional desk of his office.

With this shield, the battle he wages is with the mounting administrative tasks of Castle Redemption. Every week, more would-be adventurers show up to Breachill to join the Sunknights, and each person must be housed, screened, trained, and found a role. Increasingly, fights break out among the recruits that need settling. The tension between the townsfolk and their would-be defenders increases every week as well. The result is that these days he finds himself arbitrating conflict within Breachill even more than addressing threats beyond.

Yet his work is more than simply a growing militia. Every week, the renovations of the citadel increase in complexity, and town artisans must be paid, listened to, or reminded for the hundredth time of the purpose behind each construction. In addition, Councilwoman Gardenia has deferred to Jacques more and more on civic matters, and recently he has become a voting member of the Breachill Town Council, the town’s representative from the growing presence of Castle Redemption.

The result is piles upon piles of scrolls needing to be read, needing to be signed, needing to be changed, or worse of all, requiring a meeting. Jacques has grown to hate administrative meetings most of all.

He can’t honestly remember the last time he was in the training yard, with his actual shield upon his handless arm.

Jacques frowns, his fingers still drumming out the distracted beat. Memories plague him, of being at Jethro Vermillion’s side, in this very citadel, uncovering the first signs of the Cinderclaw cult. Signs that would lead him to the Mwangi Expanse, sweating beneath heavy armor as a giant crocodile dragged him into the swampy depths.

Wondering plagues him as well. He is wondering for the thousandth time if he should have accompanied Jethro into Dreamgate after the Mwangi, and whether Jacques might have somehow saved his friend’s life. It is a thought that visits him constantly, day and night.

He is also wondering if he should have traveled through Jewelgate after Jethro’s death. He is wondering whether the almost three weeks of silence forebode any doom for Obe and the others. But at least on this last thought, he reminds himself, that is why he sent Tak. Jacques trusts the fighter to keep his friend safe.

Increasingly, he is wondering whether these castle defenses are the best way to uphold Jethro’s ideals, to keep the world safe from the cleric’s haunting visions. Is this mountain of administrative work the best and highest use of his skills?

After almost an hour of remembering and brooding and wondering and worrying, his fingers stop their drumming.

His eyes flick to the piles of scrolls littering every inch of the desk’s surface. He sighs, shakes his head, and reaches for the quill.

A quick knock on his door precedes it opening with a rush. The pale halfling woman with bright, braided red hair is out of breath, her eyes wide.

“Captain!” Betsy Jadefinders says. “We’ve got trouble, to the South. Big friggin’ trouble, sir. Get your armor, sword, and shield, sir. We need you, sir. Right. Now.”

AoA Session Intros: 88-98

[Author’s note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. After writing only the occasional cut-scene, I decided to do a quick narrative before every Pathfinder session instead of a recap. We already had someone in the group writing recaps, so mine felt redundant, and there were too many opportunities for fiction writing that I was letting pass me by. Below are a collection of intros from our sessions. I don’t love using present tense, but it’s what fits best into these tabletop roleplaying sessions.]

Session 88: Theft in the Regents’ Vault

[player-written intro]

Session 89: Brigven and the Cops

“Is that them?” a voice in the shadows asks.

“What in the bowels of the Darklands do you mean, ‘is that them?’ They aren’t dwarves, for Torag’s sake! I see two humans, a goblin dressed like a human, a silver-skinned elf, and a rat in armor. That’s all five of them.”

“Do we get ‘em now, then?”

“No. The Regent wants us to merely watch them for now. So stay hidden and eyes open.”

“Right. You think we can take ‘em?”

“They look tough and battle-hardened, and it would be two on five. No, I do not. But, always remember that we have the law on our side. We will be saving the city by taking these five off the streets.”

“Right. Don’t see why we wait to take ‘em, then.”

“The Regent said watch, so we watch. The time to act will come soon enough.”

Knuckles pop in the darkness of the alleyway. “I think I could take ‘em. At least a couple of ‘em.”

“No. We do this by the Regent’s wishes. The city is at the precipice and about to topple. We are the law that will set things right.”

“We’ll be heroes, then.”

“Quite right.”

“Alright. We watch.”

“It looks like they’re moving now. Stay hidden, and let’s see what they do next.”

Session 90: The Earthfire Prison

In a dwarven city deep underground, before a heavy, squat, stone structure, we have ourselves a situation.

A half dozen dwarves, all bearing identical seals of the Guild of Arms, surround the party. Obedience has disappeared. Leilani looks wary. Margaret blurs with defensive magic. Tak has both swords out in a defensive position.

And a strong dwarf grapples with the taller Sabine amidst them all.

“Tell your friends to drop their weapons,” she growls, so only the elf can hear. “We had planned to just take you off the streets for a few days, but you’re about to land in a dwarven prison for years.”

“Marda!” one of the dwarven city guards says, panting as he runs up. “What’s this all about then?”

Marda raises her voice to the gathering crowd of guards. “These outsiders seemed to be breaking into this building! When we questioned them, they drew their weapons!”

“Aren’t they the ones Hammerson deputized?” another dwarf asks.

“I don’t care who they are! They’ve drawn weapons on Guardsmen!”

The squat, ugly dwarf with Marda has paused from blowing his heavy brass whistle. In the break you can hear other City Watch whistles blowing in the distance.

Session 91: Confronting the Alljoiner

Since it’s been TEN FRIGGIN’ DAYS, let’s briefly recap where we are, a la Troy in GCP:

As part of gaining the Court of Regents’ favor in the dwarven city of Kovlar, you all were doing several mini quests for the various guild leaders. You ventured out into the lake for the Guild of Arms and Commander Grokar Hammersong, discovering lower doses of the same poison that wiped out Cypress Point.For the Guild of Coins and Goldhand Wuldi Irontemper, you investigated a theft from the vault of the Regents, exonerating Fortunate Algera Kord of the Gamblers’ Guild and uncovering that she too had been the victim of a theft, but not yet finding the true culprit. You helped Adorned Stosk Dolgindir and the Guild of Finery explore a missing tailor, Algret, who you realized disappeared somewhere in the Earthfire District.

And finally, before she would agree to get the Court together to address what you (particularly Obe) believed was a threat from the Scarlet Triad, you helped Forgemaster Kelda Halrig and the Anvillers’ Guild settle a dispute with some merchants who claimed that they were receiving shoddy weapons. You traced the forged weapons back to a disgruntled dwarf named Brigven, who revealed three things:

  1. There is a secret cult to the evil dwarven god Droskar somewhere in the city, and they were the ones paying Brigven to replace good weapons with shoddy forged ones.
  2. Though he doesn’t know where it is, the cult is operating out of someplace called the Hidden Forge.
  3. They are being led by a fearsome woman named Ilssrah Embermead, the first name of which matches the name in Laslunn’s journal as a higher-up in the Scarlet Triad.

Convinced you now had enough evidence for the Court to act, you implored Forgemaster Halrig to gather the Regents and she agreed to do so the next morning. That night–last night, in game terms–Leilani also became convinced that her mentor, Gwenryl Longbraid, had gone missing, and you searched her empty house to no avail.

You woke up this morning ready to meet with the Court, but on the way two members of the Guild of Arms accosted you and told you to follow them for questioning. You did so, all the way to the Earthfire District and to a squat, stone building. There a tense standoff ensued that could have gone a lot of different directions, and eventually ended with you agreeing to be escorted back to the Court of Regents to sort out what was happening.

There you found that the Court had broken up when you didn’t show, but not before those who didn’t trust you–led by Mountainheart Kolarun Chiselrock of the Stonemasons’ Guild–cast suspicion on YOU. Thankfully, Forgemaster Halrig and Commander Hammersong remained on your side and vowed to help you. Indeed, Hammersong said that he’d question the two corrupt guards who accosted you and ensure no patrols went through the Earthfire District for a couple of hours so you could investigate. He warned you, though, that you were no longer deputized, and if you were caught breaking the law you would be imprisoned.

Back to the Earthfire District you went, and through a hole in the ceiling at the back of that squat, stone building. You discovered Gwenryl and Algret, both of whom had been taken captive by some corrupt faction within the Guild of Arms. You freed them both, and now find yourself in pitched battle with those corrupt guardsmen. There is a wall of hairy, fleshy, baby arms to the east, and a patch of grease in the hallway. One of the guards is dead, three remain. Margaret and the southernmost guard are currently Grabbed by the hairy baby arms. Tak is currently Restrained by them.

Session 92: Entering the Hidden Forge

There is no sun to signal dawn in Kovlar. Instead, members of the Physic Guild make their morning routes throughout the city, lighting the “dawn torches” to announce a new day.

Those lights shine upon a city in disarray, brimming with tension. And as a dwarf lights the torch outside of the Sleep Like A Stone inn, we are transported inside.

There, in a bed too small for his frame, is a warrior from Tian-Xa. His sleep reflects the city outside, full of disquieting dreams. One such dream visits him often…   

[player-written dream sequence]

Session 93: Tak Revealed, Coxsackie Returned

“Well, well, well. So the children have finally arrived. You all have caused quite a ruckus. I don’t suppose it’s a surprise that you found this place, but I do find myself fascinated that you have surived to do so. Kralgurn, though admittedly annoying, was no slouch. I suppose he’s dead now, ‘cause that’s what you all do, bodies piled everywhere. You would have made powerful allies had you not been so…” and she makes a sour face, “chaotic. I just can’t rely on wildcards.”

“Speaking of which, allow me to introduce my associates. Folks call this charming human here The Anarchist, our own agent of chaos like you all. But unlike you, she is adept at preparing places the be ready for a new order. Despite her moniker, she is 100% a servant of Order. Isn’t that right, The A?”

The A looks around nervously, the blowgun at her lips.

“And that hulking fellow over there is called an Accursed Forge-Spurned, a rare dwarf whose failure to Droskar in life was so profound that he has been consigned in undeath to gorge endlessly on others’ suffering. I’m sure he’d love to see you slavin’ away here, but as I’ve explained to him, you’re too dangerous to be allowed to live.”

“They don’t look dangerous to me. They look small, and fragile.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find them quite the chore, my friend. But let’s be polite and finish our introductions. I am made to understand you’ve been tellin’ folks in Kovlar that the Scarlet Triad takes over a place quietly, and that’s right on. We are, truth be told, less inclined towards blood and death than you lot. Butcherin’ gets you meat but wastes labor, in my view.”

“But when threatened, we do our best to put down the threat. Allow the seeds we’ve planted to weaken a place to rise up and snap shut like a purple worm’s jaws. And you all are definitely a threat that needs to be put down. Isn’t that right, Toshifume-san?”

Session 94: The Battle of the Forge

Ilssrah Embermead pauses in the rough, stone tunnel. Even above the sounds of battle and the spinning blades of her spell, she hears the forge-spurned, undead giant roar and expel its fiery breath.

Perhaps I should stay, she thinks, ensure these children are put down with finality. The forge-spurned, Tak, The A – these are valuable game pieces with unique skills. She grips Fleshroaster, and the black chain begins to glow red-hot. It would be delicious to watch them suffer and die in Droskar’s embrace.

Damn the timing! No. I may already be late for my negotiation, and the dragon was quite clear on the importance of manners. Within the Hidden Forge, temple to the Dark Smith himself, my allies must prevail. There are only four of the children, after all.

Saying a quick prayer and with a grimace, Ilssrah pivots and storms into the darkness.

Session 95: Hidden Forge Aftermath

Obe’s arrow appears mid-air, sails twenty feet, and vanishes into the accursed forge-spurned’s open mouth. Ice crackles from its lips and the creature groans. Its head swivels ponderously slowly towards the molten lava of the forge, then to the cowering, chained dwarves, and finally, back to Leilani. Its burning eyes lock onto the necromancer-hunter as its flesh begins to flake away like ash. And then, a puppet with its strings cut, the undead giant’s form collapses in on itself. The warhammer and chains clatter to the stone floor first, followed by sections of its plate armor. Kthunk, kthunk, kthunk.

As the last piece of battered iron falls, the forge in the room suddenly blazes. Fire erupts, flowing upwards and spilling across the ceiling. Sabine finds herself scrabbling to get away as the heat washes over her. For all of you, the already sweltering room becomes oppressive in moments. And, somewhere in the roar of the flames, you distinctly hear a deep, male voice, bellowing in anger.

As suddenly as it began, the fire dies, taking the unseen voice with it. The room cools to merely hot. There is only the quiet of low, crackling flames. No distant, echoing hammers. No haunting groans. You hadn’t realized that there was an unseen presence with you in this place until now, when it’s gone. Yet there can be no doubt, even for those of you blinded by the forge-spurned’s stinging embers… something has changed. You are more alone in the Hidden Forge now than moments before.

Session 96: Getting Ready for Saggorak

As Obedience and Sabine are finishing the dismantling of the machine in the southernmost room, the echoes of dozens of dwarven boots fill the Hidden Forge. Commander Hammersong’s voice rings out.

“Fan out! I want this place picked clean, and any remaining survivors tended to. Someone find me one of the outsiders!”

Session 97: Entering the Old Workshop

As you make your way to the Earthfire District, you are aware that all dwarven eyes are on you. People point and whisper. Some scowl and make fists, their hard eyes following you. Mothers with babies turn and shield their children from you with their bodies. People cross the street or duck into buildings to get out of your path. It is clear that although some people may see you as the saviors of this city, no one feels particularly safe in your presence. And of course it is also clear that many people in the city see you like predators stalking their streets.

Eventually, though, you are back at the alley on the edge of the Earthfire District, through the short door into the basement of an abandoned warehouse, through the secret entrance, down the stairs, and back into the Hidden Forge. There is Commander Hammersong and around a dozen of his Armsmen. Many don’t look like they’ve slept.

As Hammersong approaches, you see dark circles under his eyes. “Ah, you’re back. Good. What news from the city?”

Session 98: The Old Workshop

Commander Grokar Hammersong sighs heavily and smooths his black, thick beard with a calloused hand. For the thousandth time, his eyes wander to the dark tunnel.

“You look exhausted, Commander.”

He blinks slowly and turns to the speaker, a middle-aged dwarf with brown, wavy hair pulled back from her broad face.

“Ah. Sergeant Arna. You snuck up on me.”

Arna grins. She has painted a long black line from forehead to chin on the lefthand side of her face, something she always does when on duty. She had explained the significance years ago, but in the moment Hammersong can’t remember it.

“Actually, Commander, I’m wearing chainmail and clanked over here making quite the racket. I believe you’re going on a third day without sleep, sir. Perhaps you should take a break. Leave this guard post to us while you get some rest.”

He sighs again, his ornate black and gold platemail feeling impossibly heavy.

“I appreciate the concern, Sergeant. I had only hoped…” his voice trails off. “It’s been, what? Almost three hours since they went in?”

Arna nods.

“Well, I suppose I hoped they would be back by now. That this whole business would be behind us. What does it mean, do you think, that we have heard nothing?”

The dwarf shrugs her shoulder, chainmail clinking. “They are the most powerful force I’ve ever seen, Commander. The stuff of legends if I’m honest. We found the bodies of those lake serpents washed ashore, giant things. And it looks like they carved through these forces here like a hot knife through butter. What I guess I’m trying to say is that they can handle whatever’s out there, sir. If it’s taking awhile, it just means the threat is far away or there’s a lot to handle.”

“Yes, that’s precisely what I’m afraid of. If they fall…”

“They won’t, Commander.”

“You sound quite sure.”

“I feel quite sure, sir.”

Hammersong smiles wearily. “Alright. I suppose your faith will have to be enough for now. You’re right that I am not doing anyone any good here. I’ll go get some sleep, be back in six hours.”

Arna nods.

He groans as he stands, slinging his warhammer across one shoulder. “I’ll bring with me a change of guard so you too can get some rest when I’m back.” He glances at the silent tunnel again and purses his lips. “And Sergeant?”

“Yes, Commander?”

“If three more hours pass and they haven’t returned, send for Archmage Nalruven. The Guild of Spells can begin to ward this tunnel. If you’re wrong and our enemies break through, we’ll need to weaken them if we stand any sort of chance.” Hammersong drags himself heavily towards the staircase in the Hidden Forge. He has none of Arna’s faith in his chest. Instead, a cold dread has filled him, a feeling that he and everyone here are falling through darkness, and that the only question left is when the impact will kill them.

AoA 13: Session Intros 79-87

[Author’s note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. After writing only the occasional cut-scene, I decided to do a quick narrative before every Pathfinder session instead of a recap. We already had someone in the group writing recaps, so mine felt redundant, and there were too many opportunities for fiction writing that I was letting pass me by. Below are a collection of intros from our sessions. I don’t love using present tense, but it’s what fits best into these tabletop roleplaying sessions.]

Session 79: Book 4 Begins

Our scene opens in the hustle-bustle of a tavern.

“We’ve got three tables waitin’ for ale!” Roxie Denn shouts. “Move yer asses, ladies!”

Despite the words, Roxie is beaming. The Pickled Ear has never been more crowded. Every table full, standing room only, with the crowd spilling out into the street. She takes a deep breath and savors it. Alcohol, sweat, and a hint of vomit… the smell of success. She thwacks the shoulder of the enormous half-orc next to her.

“Ulgar, help me up, would you now?”

“Oh, uh. Sure Roxie. Is it time?”

“Of course it’s time,” she laughs.

Soon she is standing on one of her tables, banging an iron spoon on an iron mug.

“Alright, shut up, the lot of you!” she cries. “I said shut up!”

The room quiets to a murmur.

“You’ve heard the rumors, and I’m here to say the rumors are true. Tonight we have ourselves not one, but two performers, vying for yer love and coin.”

The crowd bursts into banging mugs on tables, wordless cries, and applause.

Into the noise Roxy shouts, “So let’s get it started!”

For more than a full minute, the cacophony persists, Roxy standing on the table with her spoon, mug, and satisfied smile. She waits, dramatically, until the crowd finally settles.

“They’re each gonna perform two songs, and yer noise is gonna determine the winner. Whoever you choose stays the rest of the night. So you ready to make some noise?”

The tavern erupts again.

“Alright then, you’ve been enjoyin’ ‘em the past month. So let’s see what they brought for a battle of the bands. First up we’ve got… the Drunken Dwarves!”

As cheers and good-natured insults fill the space, five dwarves in furs and studded leather take the stage in the far corner. Four of them have long, unkempt hair the color of dirt, their beards long and untamed. The fifth is as wide as he is tall, head shaved into a neat mohawk and beard braided. They gather their instruments and begin to play…

[song. roll Performance check]

“Alright, alright, settle down,” Roxie’s voice carries from the other side of the tavern. “You newcomers may not know our second performer, but he’s responsible for building the Pickled Ear back up when a bunch of awful villains trashed the place. Thank the gods, he’s now back from his travels. Give a Pickled Ear welcome to Coxsackie!”

[song. roll Performance check]

As you sit to begin his second song, you see a familiar face in the sweaty, raucous crowd. She is half-elven, armored, and beautiful, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She has a serious face with a strong jaw, but when she catches Coxsackie’s eye she smiles brightly and winks.

Session 80: Crystals Crystals Everywhere

“Ah, visitors! I am Talamira. Welcome to the Jewelgate waystation, designed as a tribute to Yuelral! We have not had visitors in some time. I must warn you to beware the far end of the chamber, something… wrong… is…” and her face begins to look anguished and confused.

Session 81: The Purple Worm

While you all battle carnivorous crystals in a cave deep underground, we see Greta Gardania staring at a blank sheet of parchment lying on the desk in front of her. A knock on the door causes her head to snap up.

Standing in the open doorway is a gray-bearded dwarf with deep smile lines around his eyes and mouth.

“Greta? I’m sorry if I startled you.”

“No Jorsk. I was merely lost in thought. What can I do for you?”

“I was just wondering if you had word from Obedience and the adventurers?”

Greta grins. “You ask after them quite often, Jorsk Hinterclaw. Pining for your own days of adventuring back in Nirmathas?”

The dwarf chuckles. “Maybe some of that, sure, but that was many years ago. So, has there been word?”

“Well they’ve only just left this morning…”

“Ah, I hadn’t realized. Thought it was a day or so ago.”

“They were waiting for Sabine Sterling to return. She apparently did, finally, though I didn’t get a chance to see her. Then they were off. But you’re in luck. There has indeed been word already. Jacques just let me know.”

“Is that right?”

“Indeed. It seems there was a ghost and some accursed crystals in the waystation, and several ancient elven tomes besides. Jacques says they’ve cleared the danger and have stepped into wherever that portal leads.”

Jorsk’s gray eyebrows are bushy and wild and have climbed up his forehead.

“Ghosts and accursed crystals, you say? Well, isn’t that something.”

“Let us hope they discover the Scarlet Triad threat on the other side and are as easily able to deal with that. I grow quite tired of feeling in constant danger.”

“Well, cheers to that. Which reminds me, has that group Captain du Tank sent south to clear the roads returned?”

Greta frowns. “No, in fact. I’d forgotten about them.”

“Must be going on two weeks now, eh?”

Greta grunts. “Yes. I don’t like that at all. I’ll talk to Jacques.”

“Good, good. We don’t get many visitors from that Five Kings Road, but something seems surely to be keeping them away. Sorry to give you another thing to cause you worry.”

“There’s as much hope as worry, Jorsk. I said the same to Obedience Fletcher before they left. I’ll be sure to let you know as I get further updates.”

“I do appreciate it, Greta. It’s somewhat fun to imagine. Ghosts and cursed crystals! Ancient tomes! Sounds exciting, eh?” “Not for me, my friend. I’m afraid that, unlike you, I have no stomach for adventuring,” Greta answers, but she’s speaking to open air, as she hears Jorsk muttering happily to himself down the hallway.

Session 82: Back Into The Breach

Before we dip back into the crystal caverns, let’s peek back into the very Town Hall you all saved from fire…

“Jorsk! Jorsk! Jorsk, a word!” a voice echoes down the hallway.

The gray-bearded dwarf blinks and looks around. “Hm? I say. Whozzat?”

A goblin scurries towards him, hampered by a long white robe with blue trim dragging behind her. She wears a flat-topped black hat as big as her head, along with ostentatiously large earrings. Around her neck, bouncing as she runs, is an enormous silver butterfly on a thick chain.

“Ah, Ms. Bumblebrasher. Nice to see you this morning. How are you, Warbal?”

Her red eyes squint. “You getting deaf in your old age? I almost had to use my goblin screech.”

“My apologies, Warbal. I was… lost in thought is all.”

“Well, you’re smiling so it can’t be too bad. What’s on your mind?”

“Ah, just heard word that our famous adventurers have begun another adventure! Fighting ghosts and accursed crystals everywhere they turn! Has me pining for my youth, I suppose.”

“Oh my! Are they okay? Is– Is Obedience Fletcher hurt?” Her eyes have gotten impossibly large.

“They’re fine, from what I hear. But such concern, my friend. Might that be a bit of a crush on our local hero, eh?”

Warbal waves the idea away. “No, no. It’s Helba who has the crush. Asks after him almost every– Oh! Helba! That’s why I was hollering after you!”

“Yes?”

“The Bumblebrashers are out of food.”

Jorsk sighs. “Again?”

“Well, there are more of them now. More every week, actually. Have to feed the babies, you understand.”

“I see, well. Fine. I’ll talk to the Council and ensure more food gets to the caves.”

“Much appreciated, Jorsk! And they say especially more pickles! Seems to be a tribe favorite these days.”

“Of course, of course. We’ll make sure pickles are part of the delivery.”

“Desna’s grace upon you, Councilman Hinterclaw!” Warbal smiles, and begins waddling away down the hallway.

Meanwhile, back in the Crystal caverns, we find a bit of a situation on our hands…

Session 83: Welcome to Saggorak

As Obedience describes in whispered words the chamber beyond, a thought passes through the party. This thought takes different form in each mind, expressed in as diverse ways as the members themselves. But the essence of this thought is the same, tickling at the back of each person’s neck.

With miles of earth and rock above them, a crystal chamber untouched by society for ten thousand years behind them, and a fortified stone wall twenty feet thick before them–The thought each of you ponders silently settles into your bones, and that thought is this…

You were meant to find this place. It somehow, some way, fits into the larger tapestry. What looks like a crevasse formed by time or ancient siege begins to feel divinely crafted. You may deny this thought, this nascent belief. You may choose not to share it with the others. But the thought is there, nonetheless.

The horrors beyond are calling to you.

Session 84: So Much Eating

Margaret’s small, round eyes penetrate the darkness of this ancient, dwarven hallway. A black, mold-like growth spills out of the cracks in the stone everywhere, connecting in a web of tendrils accented with twitching bulbs. Doorways line the hallway on either side, one to the left and four to the right.

The hallway ends in what appears to be a large room. There, lounging in clear view, are two gugs, seemingly oblivious to the sounds of the earlier combat. At first Margaret thinks the monstrosities are talking in low whispers, but then she sees it clearly – they are eating, slowly and contentedly. She watches as a small hand disappears into one of the gugs’ serrated mouths, while the other carefully peels the flesh from what appears to be a leg. They are murmuring happily, like lovers taking lunch on the edge of a pond.

Session 85: Grikkitog and Xevalorg

As Leilani approaches the ancient hearth, Obedience Fletcher speaks up from the hallway.

“I wouldn’t touch it if I was you, Leilani. Something is not right.”

The oracle pauses mere feet from the hearth. The spectral eyes in its depths narrow, and the entire room seems to… growl. It’s a low, deep sound, a mix of an animal’s predatory warning and the rumble of an avalanche.

Every wall in the kitchen begins sprouting more pairs of spectral eyes, like bubbles escaping to the water’s surface. Dozens of them watch Margaret and Leilani, surrounding the pair of adventurers.

And that is when the jagged, rocky mouths begin to appear…

Let’s roll for initiative!

Session 86: Welcome to Kovlar

The enormity of Saggorak surrounds you. Scarred stone buildings of all sizes stack through the underground cavern endlessly. You can hear movement in the ruins, plus shrieks, moans, and roars. For Obedience, there is a strange similarity between Saggorak and the Mwangi Expanse in that way, a sense that untold life is teeming beyond your vision.

Standing not twenty feet from you, though, is a startled and very alive dwarf, her eyes wide in the darkness. She wears white, padded armor over dark pants and boots. Her round face is framed by a silver headband, matching the silver in her buckler and warhammer.

“Greyara? Is that you? By Magrim’s hand, child, how can it be?”

Session 87: The Regents’ Requests

[In the last session, someone made a joke that I should do a Public Radio show with my honeyed (okay, I may have inserted that adjective) voice, so I decided to ham it up for this intro]

Hello and welcome to session 87 of the Age of Ashes campaign. So glad you could join us this evening. I’m your GM Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, and as always I have with me Dylan (playing Margaret A-ROH-den-ey), Jared (playing Obedience Fletcher), Marcus (playing Leilani Greyara), Ryan (playing Sabine Sterling), and Owen (playing Toshifume Takakiyo, or Tak).

Tonight we’re back at the Court of Regents in scenic Kovlar. In our last session, Leilani’s mentor, Gwenryl Longbraid, hustled you, the party, to this little-known dwarven settlement after encountering you in the horror-strewn ruins of Saggorak. Gwenryl advised you enlist the help of the Regents, who each represented powerful guilds in the city — she also let it be known that Kovlar had its own problems, and maybe they were linked to yours.

Thus began ten interviews, one by each Regent, as the Court determined if they could trust these outsiders. You’ve completed 7 of the 10, and by your estimation four now trust you, while three remain skeptical. We will begin tonight’s session with the eighth Regent’s interview.

Before we jump back in, let’s take any questions from the audience about our current situation. Remember the toll-free number is 1-888-AGE-ASHS, that’s 1-888-243-2747. You can contact us on Twitter or Instagram at @ageofashescampaign.

Alright, let’s get started…