After four months of delays, we finally managed to finish The Death Jade. This adventure scenario is set in 1936 Shanghai. Rumblings of war are being heard in the International Settlement of Shanghai as the characters are hired to find a priceless artifact from ancient Chinese history — the Donguin jade, part of the fallen star that allegedly prophesied the end of the First Emperor’s reign, and which is said to carry his soul! The first man hunting the jade, Count Rusikov, has gone missing, and as they track his steps, they must stay ahead of Japanese and communist spies, and dodge nationalist warlords.

The Death Jade is live on DriveThruRPG.com for both Fate and Ubiquity. This 25 page adventure module costs $2.99.

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Our D&D game picked up with the characters’ caravan, led by their dwarven ranger, finding the Graian Way — the main Roman artery to the nearest real town, Ariolica. Positioned near the Jura Mountains, Carrus the ranger knows the place, and is known to the population. While the merchants are unloading and trying to trade, the characters did a quick exploration.

The players for Carrus and Marcellus were out this week, so the latter spent most of his time arranging for the arrest of the Vandal goblins that attacked them. Carrus’ dwarven connections in the town give them the lowdown on the tribe their captives are from — the Vanhalus tribe of goblins moved into the area a few months back, but supposedly there’s a much large force of them that have moved into the area. They’re close enough to be a real concern for Carrus’ town and hold. We also learn that Carrus is a local hero for pulling together the defense of a small Graeoceli village near his people’s hold; to the locals, he is “Carrus the Goblin Killer.”

They also spot a pair of goblins who are “Alemmani” — they’ve allied themselves with that great tribe of humans and they are from the “Sweda” band of goblins. They are in town as traders in fur. They know the Vanhalus and with some browbeating, they learn the Vanhalus are much larger a group that their prisoners told them. They were expecting a band of 500…these goblins say it’s more like 5000. Even with the assumed children and non-combatants in band that large, they are looking at 200-500 combatants! They also find out villagers from Timo’s Ford have not be shopped around for slavery. Why would they be holding onto the villagers? The Sweda guess they are being used to build defenses. Your Vanhalus are hear to stay.

Marcellus, meanwhile, had made contact with the prefect of the town — an Alemmani that goes by the name Abrecan Legio (the strong legionnaire), but whom he had known in the Legio II Augustus as a centurion, Abrecan Haraldus. He supposedly had died in combat, yet here he is, appointed the prefect not by the district tribune, but by the people of the town. Things are starting to fall apart for the empire, even here 50 miles behind the front.

Abrecan is convinced by the party to pull a force from the Vigiles of the city to probe the Vanhalus camp — after all, even Marcellus’ small force has done for two dozen of the goblins. With a heavy century (100) of trained fighters, their pair of magic-users, and some siege equipment, they might be able to intimidate the goblins into giving up their prisoners.

There was some role playing opportunities — the monk, overwhelmed by the mass of human contact, retreated to a quiet place to meditate; the bard and cleric hit the Temple of Apollo to pray, then went in search of female companionship; Carrus went to dinner with the town’s dwarves; and Marcellus worked with Abrecan to start putting together their expedition for the following morning.

We had a short fight where a pair of goblins from the Vanhalus, in town to trade, spot and try to assassinate Carrus, who was stumbling home to the caravan horribly drunk. Even in his condition, he was able to put down one of his attackers, while the monk ran off the last.

We ended the night with the expedition — 100 men plus the party under Abrecan, armed in Roman style, but with a pair of light ballistas broken down and being hauled by the men, heading into the snowy forests of the Jura to find this goblin settlement.

It’s something every GM will face. You’ve started a game, and now you have new players. The second installment of our Dungeons & Dragons in an alternate collapsing Roman Empire met last night. My task for the night was to fuse two new players and their characters, plus one of the main group that had been away the week before, into the action.

When last we had left the two characters introduced in the “pilot”, they were hunkered down with a half dozen people in a small, but wealthy, caravan of merchants in the little hamlet of Timo’s Ford, a small town next to a stone bridge over a tributary of the Rhine in the Black Forest. The entire 150 or so of the town’s population had been disappeared, their homes trashed, their animals slaughtered simply for the fun of it…they were certain it was the work of the Vandals that had hit their caravan a few hours earlier, but that would mean there’s one hell of a big population of them somewhere nearby!

They were attacked by a small band of Vandals — in our game, the Vandals are goblins pushed out of Scandinavia by the people there — and they managed to dispatch them and capture one for questioning.

The new characters are a Roman noble who has been exiled from home for his antics, and who is traveling the empire as an entertainer (he’s a bard); a former anchorite — an assimar monk who is part of the Cult of Jesus, an aasimar prophet who was hung up by the Romans — and whose guardian angel, Michael, has put him on the path to hunting demons, and linking up with one of the established characters, Aurelius Augustinian, a cleric who has healing powers; and an dwarven ranger from the Jura Mountains who’s clan are tied to the Alemmani. The last is a folk hero for his selfless rescue of an Alemmani village from Vandal raiders.

They are introduced in media res — running for their lives from two dozen Vandals and their wolves through the deep cold and snow in a darkened forest. Carrus Zwergi, the ranger, has managed to find them the fastest route away from the Vandals, keeping them behind, but they have been running for an hour and collapse at the base of a snow bank to catch their breath. Where to go? What to do? The bard is stunned — where is the army!?!

They see strange lights in a little hamlet across the river…it’s Timo’s Ford, Zwergi knows. They race to the bridge fording the river and make contact with the caravan group, and voila! the characters are joined up! After taking stock of their weapons, doing some healing, while the bard boosts everyone’s spirits, Zwergi and the former Roman legionnaire, Quintus Marcellus, plan their strategy. There are a dozen of the goblins across the bridge, barely visible against the snow; they can hear the wolf with that party baying to the second wolf with another group stealthily making its way around the opposite side of the town. They don’t have much time, and only the PCs and one NPC are any kind of fighters…they have to move quick to preserve any advantage they have.

The party leaves the safety of the old Roman-styled tavern and cross the bridge, luring that group of Vandals out. Marcellus and Augustinian shoot the leader of the band, putting him down, but not killing him. They then jump into the fray, and Augustinian and the monk, Icio Zaccharius, surprise each other with their use of magic. Two magic users in one place!?! This is no coincidence. Zaccharius knows this is not coincidence, for the cleric had once visited his anchorhold in Malta and had questioned him on Jesus’ teachings. He knows Michael has put him on a path to find this man, and then to join forces to find the demon that killed his mentor…

After a hard-fought battle, they kill most of the Vandals and capture the leader. Their victory causes the other group of attackers to break off.

The next morning, having rested, the ranger gathered food for the group and their first decent breakfast was had. Next, they question the Vandals, discovering that there is a large force of the goblins just moved into the neighborhood — perhaps 100-200 fighting men, and maybe a total population — with their women and children — of 500-750. They took the people of Timo’s Ford to trade as slaves to the other tribes in the area.Most of them are even still alive.

The characters formulated a plan: the lead merchant of the caravan is going to take one of the horses and make a mad dash for the nearest Roman guard post, about a day’s ride in the snow. The rest will accompany the caravan to the nearest decent side town to see if they can gain some sanctuary and perhaps aid in rescuing the people of Timo’s Ford.

The characters have already leveled up from this adventure, and the stage is set for the obvious goal of this portion of the campaign: save the town and become heroes.

Previous posts have detailed some of the thinking so far on our new game campaign using 5th edition. Up until now, it’s been mostly a half-baked couple of idea that grew out of not wanting to do the Tolkein-Gygax high fantasy thing, which caused me to ground it in early medieval/fall of Rome period. I specified the gods and creatures of myth still exist (but are rare-ish), and that magic is present but rare enough to still have a “holy shit!” quality when it is seen; some people don’t believe it exists, even…

The world is fleshing out, partly because we have two new prospective players. One is a former colleague from my doctoral studies, and he’s an expert in this period and Christianity (and I am not) — so, no pressure!

It’s the year 1128 ab urbe condita — the Roman reckoning since the founding of Rome. (So about 375AD.) The main action, right now, is happening in the southwestern part of Germania Superior, near the Alps.

The first character, Quintus Marcellus, is a former legionnaire, an optio or the equivalent of a sergeant major/lieutenant, who started as a foot soldier after leaving his home in Mediolanum (modern day Milan) at 12 to join the emperor’s campaign into Gaul. He was under the command of a general named Magnus Maximus, and was for a time a standard bearer for Emperor Valentinian — a bastard of a man — where he befriended his young son, Gratian. He was part of Maximus’ response to the Great Conspiracy of Celts, Picts, and Saxons who attacked Roman forces and spent most of his career, after the Battle of Solicinium, in Rutupiae, the main landing port for their forces, until his mustering out a few months prior to the game. He has a Celt wife, Roua, who he had to divorce after the emperor’s decree Romans could not marry barbarians. They have a kid. He is now latrones — a mercenary — protecting caravans along the dangerous road to Augusta Treverorum (or Trier, as the Alemmani call it.)

Quintus’ wife is most likely an elf,  or half-elf based off of my original pitch for this universe — the Attacoti, Scotti, are most likely the same. Some of the Gauls we’ve established are firbolg (from the Volo’s Guide to Monsters) — and may be related to elves.

The next character was Aurelius Augustinius Hipponensis (or, to our real universe, Saint Augustine) who is traveling the empire after fleeing a bad romantic/marriage situation that embarrassed his family back in Africa. He is a cleric and healer — a magic user, and this makes him impressive (especially to himself!) He used his healing ability for the first time during a fight; so even to him, magic is something he wasn’t sure would actually do much more than parlor tricks.

The next character is (tentatively) Thomas Zaccarius — an aasimar, or “barukim” (the blessed) in our world. He is from Egypt, is a follower of the prophet (and fellow aasimar) Jesus of Nazareth, and has been called to fight demons and their evil in the world. He is a hermit when he can be, since the Jews and Zoroastrians look on him as a quasi-angel to whom they can ask for blessing and intercession with God…a situation his angel, Michael, assures him isn’t the case. He is traveling, chasing clues to find the demon that killed his mentor Haman — an event that led him to an anchorhold to hide from the world. A chance meeting with a young cleric named Aurelius Augustinius led him to venture back out. (Thus giving us a connection for his introduction…)

Hanging in the air is that this demon is gathering certain of the naphalim (or tiefling, as they are calling by the Alemmani) for some kind of evil plot that needs stopped.

This gives us a taste of our version of Judaism/Christianity in this world. Jehovah is one of many gods — maybe he’s even a god of gods, like Ahura Mazda — but the action of the Olympians and their Roman expression has happened from time to time (though less since the Greek Dark Ages…) so the cult of Jesus has not caught on as it did in the real world. The angels and demons play a proxy game with the tiefling and aasimar; so long as they stay off the playing field, things don’t get ugly…

Which brings us to the last character, a dwarven ranger named Carrus Zwergi, part of a tribe of dwarves that consider themselves Alemanni, but are foederati (treaty-bound) with Rome. He is the son of a blacksmith, and his tribe live in their great hall under the juraburge, or Jura Mountains, where they are known for their coal and iron mining. His people arrived in the mountains hundreds of years ago, and were allowed to stay by order of Tiberius Caesar, himself. They are practically Romans, but have the Nordic gods for their religion.

Run ins with the Vandals — in our game played by goblins — nomads that have recently poured in from Nordica (Scandinavia) have led the Zwergi to ask for help from the Romans in Trier, and that mission will bring all of the characters together.

Thursday night, I’m hoping.

One of the things that made my return to Dungeons & Dragons, and specifically 5th edition, so easy was the use of two apps I downloaded. I’ve already done a quick review of them here, but I hadn’t actually deployed them for play until Thursday night.

We tuned up the characters using Fight Club 5 to check our maths, and the characters changed a bit, but — I suspect for the cleric, especially — for the better. There was an update a few days ago and the app still works very well. I plugged in a lot of the class features that weren’t in the app and backed it up to iCloud to not lose them. It took a few hours of typing, but it was worth it. I suspect that it wasn’t they didn’t finish the product, but that they are working from the SRD for licensing reasons. Anyway, it works well.

Finally, it was time to give the system a run. We started with the characters having their caravan hit by Vandals (goblins) on the way to Augusta Treverorum. I had put the basic notes for the encounter, added the six goblins they would face and the stats for the NPC guards that were with them, and the possible loot they might get into the first Encounter, then added a second — a show down in a small hamlet where the people had been disappeared, apparently by the same tribe of Vandals. Again, adding the creatures, adjusting their weaponry and stats, was easy. i could have added maps, as well, but hadn’t gotten to that.

GM5 has a compendium built in with monster stats and XP ratings, weapons and spell data, equipment lists, etc., as well as a GM screen like pop-up that allows you to handle a lot of the basic rules without cracking a book. It also has a built in die roller that I didn’t use, instead opting for physical dice. In the two hours of play, I had one of the players, who had the Players’ Handbook open look up some equipment damage and some bits on spells to speed play, but otherwise, I didn’t crack a book for the two and a half hours until it was time to hand out XP.

With GM5 and FC5, you don’t have to even tote a book to your game session, you just need your iPad to run a game. You can even load up character sheets into it, if you need to, just in case someone forgets their stuff.

They are definitely worth the $2.99/app in the App Store. I don’t know if there is a comparable app for the Android (I’m assuming so, but there’s a few threads on the interwebz that suggest otherwise…), but if it’s by the Lion’s Den guys, that would be it.

Substance: 4 out of 5 — it’s very useful and mostly complete. You will have to add a few bits here and there. Style: 5 out of 5 — it’s a good looking app. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Tonight we took a time machine back to 1984…at least attitudinally. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve run a game of D&D (I played a disastrously bad game around 1992 with a DM that gave my wife of the time a female cleric that was mute. That’s right — bitches should heal and not heard or something…) I have leafed through the latest edition of the game and found myself transported back to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons of my youth, but with a few tweaks that appeal to my current style of gaming. I got a set of the books from a friend that had inherited them from a friend. Later I got a request from the local Meetup guys to run a game. When i mentioned this to friends, they were interested. Every few weeks, a new hint from the universe hit me: Run some D&D, dammit!

I don’t like high fantasy. I didn’t want to do a rehash of Tolkein, Martin, or any other the others… so what to do? I hit on the idea of setting it early in the medieval period: pre-knights, etc…and my historian’s brain immediately thought, “Well, why not set it in the fall of the Roman Empire? But with the Greco-Roman gods and monsters?” I bounced this off the gaming group to good response. So how to do monsters..? This led me to look through the Monster Manual and decide I was ditching most of the stuff in there. First out: Orcs. That’s Tolkein’s schtick. Orcs went back to being goblins. Then I noted the hobgoblins were pretty bad-ass in 5th edition…there’s my “orcs.”

But what about the alternate history part of it? I decided the various tribes might have stand-in creatures: the Celts are elves and Firbolg, depending on where they’re from, with plenty of interbreeding wth humans; the Vandals are goblins, the Ostrogoths are a bunch of tribes of humans and hobgoblins that have ties of fealty; the Visigoths are something worse. Dwarves, giants, other Nordic critters are out there. Likewise, there are still let-over nasties from the Olympians; there are angles and demons — and their “human” spawn the aasimar and tiefling — running about the deserts of the Western Roman Empire with ties to the Jews.

So tonight, we took the campaign out for a spin. The characters are a cleric who can cast magic, Aurelius Augustinius Hipponensis (or, to our universe, Saint Augustine!) We’ve decided magic is relatively rare, and that this represents some kind of preference by the gods. The other character is Quintus Marcellus, a recently retired optio (the second in command of a century — a sergeant major/lieutenant) who is working as a mercenary for caravans traveling on the Germania border.

We opened cold (literally) with the characters waking from their sleep on a frigid, snowy morning on the road from the Alps through the Black Forest to Augusta Treverorum, the provincial capital for Germania Inferior. During a breakfast of hot water, stale bread, and an egg taken from a nearby bird’s nest, Marcellus notes something is off, but he’s not sure what. They soon find out — a six-man band of Vandals (goblins) attacks the caravan. They’d already captured one of the four guards who was out for firewood, and after a trade of arrows, they set on the caravan. Aurelius lets fly with Sacred Flame, setting on goblin alight! This brings the attention of a Vandal archer that shoots him through the arm. After getting the arrow out, he used heal light wounds on himself. The goblins were quickly put down, including one getting stomped to death by the panicked horses of the lead wagon.

The caravan moved on along a frozen solid track of mud, arriving at a small hamlet near a bridge over a small, fast river at mid-afternoon. They note the farms around, some walled to keep in animals, have no animals about.  Then Aurelius notes there is no smoke from the chimneys…no one is home. With two dozen or so visible buildings, there should be about 120-150 people here.

Marcellus and another guard reconnoiter the town and find the buildings empty, but signs of struggle everywhere. There are indications of bloodletting, and they find a severed hand in the town’s inn. The livestock is either gone or slaughtered. Breakables in the homes have been shattered for no apparent reason and Nordic runes are scrawled here and there. The Vandals have attacked the place, but where is everyone? If they killed the villagers, why take their bodies? If they didn’t kill them, what did they do with them..?

By this time it was night and the caravan hunkered down, fortifying the tavern, a two story Romanesque building in the midst of single story stone hovels, and putting the caravan wagons and horses in the space between the tavern and stables. They light no fires, but Aurelius purifies food so they can use some of the slaughtered animals. It’s their first fresh meat in days…but it’s uncooked and barely palatable.

A few hours after nightfall, the goblins make their move — two teams of three are sniffing around looking for the caravan. This led to a fight that eventually went for the players. In the fight, they also made a point of capturing one of the Vandals for questioning. With the goblin trussed up, they were preparing to question it when we knocked off for the night.

So, we were learning on the fly some of the rules, but mostly it’s simple — roll a d20, add modifiers, hit a target number (or don’t.) I tried to keep it simple, and it was. The fights were quick, and damage was much more heavy than I remember from AD&D. The addition of proficiency bonuses, fighting style bonuses, etc. rapidly add up, making even low level characters pretty effective. Second, magic users are much more useful at lower levels. I remember spellcasters being pretty useless until they had a few levels under their belt; here, even using cantrips wisely, the cleric was a heavy hitter. I did note, during the character creation, that the attempts to give the various magic classes their own flavor leads to the most fiddly, complex bits in the game.

As to the setting — it’s still a work in development, but the flavor of the night wasn’t high fantasy, except for the magic. The environment was much less generically pastoral, with a generally wintery depressive feel, and a more menacing note between the howling of wolves, the cold, the bad food. Adding the Roman elements was more spicing than a main flavor; that may need to change, but overall, I thought it worked pretty well for a first run of a new system in a genre I just don’t do.

Aaaaaand The Illuminati Treasure is live in Fate and Ubiquity versions! When your Christmas party interrupted by a car crash, the driver — shot and dying — begs you to get his journal to safety. A journal with research leading to the lost treasure of the Illuminati! The race is on between Nazis and mobsters, the Freemasons, and the characters to find the treasure before the others do!

Set in 1937, The Illuminati Treasure is a fast-paced pulp adventure scenario and weighs in at 22 pages and $2.50.

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We’ve got another new adventure scenario in the final stages of production. The Death Jade has gotten bumped repeatedly the last month due to issues with getting cover art, but hopefully should be out by the end of February.