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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It’s been getting “meh” reviews and i wasn’t particularly interested in this series, so I went in with low expectations…but found myself enjoying Iron Fist, even though it is unquestionably the weakest outing of the Netflix/Marvel series.

The good stuff — the supporting characters are interesting and richly-fleshed out. In particular, I found Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meechum and Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing to be the strongest of the bunch. Madam Gao, a recurring antagonist for Daredevil, is also nicely fleshed out. Finn Jones does a workman-like job with what he has as Danny Rand, the hero, but he’s quickly overshadowed by the more interesting Colleen Wing. The bad guys are also good — from the revenant Harold Meechum, to Gao and her nemesis inside The Hand, Bakuto (played with a nice oiliness by Ramon Rodriguez, who i vaguely remembered from The Wire.)

The “meh”: Where Daredevil used color motifs, lighting, and inspired fight choreography to play up the moral conundrums and physical pain of a vigilante’s life, and Jessica Jones played the noir detective look and feel to accentuate the themes of control and abuse, and Luke Cage used strong color palettes, urban music and fashion to craft a believable Harlem in the middle of the Marvel universe…Iron Fist is pedestrian. The fight scenes are not over the top Hong Kong Action Theater. They’re bland and uninspired. The blocking, the shot lists, the lighting, the use of color are something you would expect out of Law & Order: Superheroes. The other Marvel shows evoke the Miller/Mazzucchelli Daredevil run; Jessica Jones has that tired PI in a dirty world flavor; Luke Cage is decidedly Black America; they’re unique. Iron Fist doesn’t play up the Eastern mysticism, choosing a bland corporate backdrop.

That makes sense in some ways. Rand is a billionaire and heir to a massive company and the board doesn’t want him there. It’s a plot element that definitely should have been explored, especially as it is the motivation for the bad guys. BUT… He’s a “living weapon” from the mystical city of K’un L’un out to destroy the Hand. He’s just not dipped in the Eastern mysticism enough, whereas — for instance — Doctor Strange at least did a better job playing to that. The character does meditation and martial arts, sure, but the look of the show isn’t exotic enough to evoke that.

The “bad”: Really, it’s the focus of the show on the Meachum’s corporate machinations and the lack of fight scenes that flow and are elegant. The credit sequence should have informed the look of the fights, with loads of sweeping movement. Jones moves well, and the choreography is accurate to some of the forms used, but it’s not chop-sockey enough, and I suspect that’s what the fans wanted.

So is it worth watching? Yes. It’s a decent addition to the Netflix/Marvel catalogue, but don’t expect anything ground breaking. Substance-wise, it’s got a lot of good character development, especially in the supporting cast, and it breaks the 3rd Act Slump that all Marvel shows seem to have; unlike the others, it doesn’t have that episode 9-11 drag. But stylistically it’s weak tea.

We picked up with our heroes last night (after a spectacularly good batch of jambalaya…yay, me!) the morning after young emperor — although there seems to be some dissension in the ranks as to whether he should become emperor — Gratian asking Quintus Marcellus, the former legionnaire, to return to service as an imperial ambassador to the tribes on the other side of the German Line. This would make him a legate — a senatorial rank that would permanently elevate him from simple Roman citizen to one of the elites. Damn right, he took the job! Additionally, Gratian and the selection of military leaders around him were so impressed with Carrus the Goblin Killer that he was asked to join the Roman Army as a “decurion” — the leader of the small cavalry band that would support Marcellus in his mission. This auxiliary force are considered “speculatores”, or “scouts” (’cause “spy” is such a dirty word…)

We picked up the action with Aurelius Augustinius, our cleric, and Marcus Calvinus, the bard, waking in bed with the pair of sisters they were celebrating their good fortune with, and hearing the return of their father — an important man in Augusta Treverorum. They quickly dressed and exit through the bedroom window with Marcus biffing his athletics test and falling comically out of the window. The pair then retired to a gashaus to have breakfast and celebrate their night of revelry.

Icio, the aasimar monk, spent the night in contemplation over the Bible the local church had, a product of two monk’s life’s work. The Vicar of Trier (what the local Franks and Alemmani call Augusta Terverorum) gives him a primer on the Alemmani language so he might spread the word in the barbarian lands he’s going to. Linking up with Aurelius and Marcus, the trio spot a young woman being chased by a half dozen toughs, who drag her into a arched alleyway between buildings. Without a thought, Icio jumps to the rescue.

They find a pair kicking the girl, while their friends egg them on. It’s smelling like it’s about to get rapey or murderous…maybe both. Icio pulls the classic up run up the wall to do his death from above spinning staff and backfist atttack on the two assailants, with a crit success that knocks the teeth out of one. Marcus bards up and lights the place up with “fairie fire”, while Aurelius blasts a shot of scared flame into the roof overhead. The combined violence and magic scares the young men, but not before the girl leaps up and headbuts one of them insensate.

Icio has a moment of righteous anger at seeing her for the first time: the cloven hooved feet; digigrade, furred legs; the rams horns on her head — is he nephalim? (The damned, or what the folks from the Near East call tiefling.) No…he can sense his opponents, and he can’t sense her nature. Moreover, an crit insight (he was rolling very well last night) makes him think this is a wild, and generally good, creature. She is Carona — a satyress or faun — from Dacia. Her tribe was wipred out by a group of Goths and she has been migrating west, relying on her wits and the occasional good graces of the faun communities throughout Germania. What she doesn’t tell them is that the six men were chasing her because she had just picked the pocket of the lead “rich bastard” and they were in pursuit.

The three convene to their inn with her to question her about the barbarian lands. She notes that Marcus has the “gift” — his music can summon magic. She can teach him to use it. For the character of Carona, I used the satyr listing in the Monster Manual as a template for a PC race, then built her in the Fight Club 5 app as a 2nd level bard/1st level rogue, and let her have all three of the Panpipes spells from the MM as her cantrips.

Meanwhile, Carrus and Marcellus get set up with the appropriate clothes for the rank. Carrus is somewhat miffed at the Roman outfit — a uniform of a Roman centurion– but Marcellus is quite chuffed to be wearing the uniform of legate, complete with a purple trimmed red cloak. they put together their small band — a Alemmani huntsman, a Saxon spy, their companion Verenor from the caravan, a pair of scouts from the auxiliaries, and their wrangler, a Down’s Syndrome animal savant named Steven than the huntsman treats as a sort of surrogate son. Steven is sensitive, and is able to chose the perfect mount for each of them. (I originally was thinking of writing Steven up as a paladin — a guy that “just knows good and bad”, but the wrangler angle felt better.)

The group finally meets up, convinces Carona — who has just been through the lands they’ll be traveling in — to aid them in their mission.

There was a second dinner with Gratian and his court, where Marcus’ uncle tells him the political landscape is changing…and not necessarily for the better for the party. Gratian’s troops are not supporting him for emperor, but instead seem to have been convinced (most likely by his senior generals) that backing his 4 year old step-brother is the way to go. Specifically, they are hoping the popular and well-connected in Constantinople Empress Justina (Valentinian’s last wife) might keep the money flowing from the Eastern Empire and provide a support from Emperor Valens. Gratian is not happy with this turn of events.

Angered by the obvious bullshit of this, Carrus explodes into defense of Gratian, and with his first 20 of the night, proceeds to berate and humble the assembled legates and tribunes. Marcellus makes the suggestion that at the very least, Gratian should keep command of the army and the regions of Gaul, as augustus (junior emperor.) They don’t make a lot of friends in the court, but they impress the old and wily Merobaudes, the Frankish king that is Gratian’s lead general.

After that they decided getting out of the city and away from the court intrigue was a good idea. They are also very aware that the success of their mission could reshape the empire…or ruin Gratian and anyone connected to him. Like them.

After a five day trip in which Marcus is trying to learn Carona’s cantrips, and Carrus is increasingly smitten with the creature, they arrive at the Limes Germanicus, the border of the Roman province of Germania. The line is a moat with a sharp berm 20′ high and topped with a wooden spiked wall. They’ve arrived at a castle that provides access through the wall under the command of a senior centurion. After a night’s rest and a study of the maps they have, the party crossed through the gate to the bridge over the moat and the road into the wilderness.

They are now on their own…

Several elements of the campaign are falling into place. I’ve been holding to magic, while present, is rare and powerful — something the 5th edition rules don’t do well for the former (Does everyone know spells? Really?) and excels at for the latter. I’ve been essentially assuming no one outside of the PCs have magic unless it is specific for the plot. This is an extraordinary group — an assimar or “demi-angel”, a cleric and bard blessed by Apollo…maybe the satyress’ presence is also something the Olympian (or the Christian God) arranged, as well.

I’m not a high fantasy fan, so keeping this gritty and based in an alt-history universe has been a main goal. The politics and intrigue of Late Antiquity/Early Medieval Europe have, so far, provided a richer backdrop than a knock-off Middle Earth could. Now, as they are heading into the wilds, I’m starting to loosen up on that. The addition of the faun is the gateway into more traditional fantasy (although we have already established that Marcellus’ common law wife in Britannia, a Celt, was an elf.)

The price on all Black Campbell adventures on DriveThruRPG have been reduced to $1.99!

 

The next volume of our Dungeons & Dragons campaign opened with a “talking about our feelings” sort of episode…okay, it was more of an expository, set the stage for the action episode.

We started the night with Icio the monk waking in the middle of the night. He slips out past the sleeping Aurelius the cleric in the tent they are sharing, knowing it was dreadfully cold but not feeling it. Drawn by a sense of purpose, he winds up going through the light conifer  patch to the Saravus (Saar) River, where Michael — the angel that speaks to him — is waiting to inform him that the creature he seeks, now calling itself Aiton (seeker), which killed his mentor, is looking for someone. A person of great power. He will have to be ready to accept help from an unexpected source, one that will challenge his beliefs and prejudices.

Aurelius Augustinius wakes in the middle of the night to a raven’s insistent crowing. He slips past the sleeping Icio and is led by the bird to the river’s edge, where he sees Icio kneeling before the angel. His old, dead girlfriend — her brown eyes glowing a gray-blue — tells him that Michael is Icio’s master, and that his faith might come between them…but that he will be a loyal and helpful companion. There is a powerful creature of titanic capabilities out there and forces are seeking it. If they find and turn this creature to evil, it will be a threat to man and gods; if turned to good, it will provide a bulwark against dark forces that are stirring.

The angel and the…whatever…is using the vision Aurelius’ girlfriend to put him at ease see each other: Michael informs the creature he should not be here. The creature informs him that they are not so different, and their goals coincide. He also tells him in no uncertain terms that Aurelius is “his…his gifts are from me, not your master.”

They both wake in the morning. Neither left the tent. They somehow coexisted in a dream.

The party has finally reached Augusta Treverorum as the news of Emperor Valentinian’s death is rocking the area. Apparently, the emperor — a foul-tempered man — died of a fit of apoplexy while “negotiating “with the Quadi tribe. They present themselves to the local prefect with the dispatches of their endeavors against the Vandals. After a short wait, they are ushered into the presence of the augustus or junior emperor, Flavius Gratianius…or Gratian. He is overwhelmed to see Marcellus, the former legionnaire, again, and the party learns that he was once the bodyguard/mentor of the young man when he was six or seven. He remembers Marcellus fondly, and they are all rewarded for their service to Rome with 5 solidi — the equivalent of a centurion’s pay for a year.

They also figure out there is more going on that means the eye. The young augustus’ general, the French king Merobaudes, seems to have a great deal of sway over the young man. There’s something not quite right.

After a bath and change of clothes, Icio visits the Vicar of the town, where he find the priest has been somewhat successful in converting the locals, and is currently working on an amenable Gratian. He is shown the church’s Bible, just brought from Ireland, and for the time, the monk is able to hold a completed copy of the Scriptures.

Later, they are at a social dinner with the finest of the city. This includes Calvinus the bard’s uncle, to whom he was sent after he refused marriage to a politically connected Christian girl in the hopes he could work his silver tongue on Eastern Roman Emperor Valens. He gets to tell their tale and impress the company. Meanwhile, Gratian clues Marcellus and Carrus the dwarf in on the political situation: The frontier is in turmoil despite a new treaty with any of the Alemmani (German) tribes. However, the Lentienses tribe is trying to browbeat other tribe into joining them against Rome in the wake of the emperor’s death, and the retirement of one of their most important generals, Theodosius.

They have no really sense of the land beyond the Limes Germanicus (the German Border) and they need someone to suss the lay of the land and try to strengthen the backs of Rome’s allies in the territory north of the Danube. He offers Marcellus a commission to re-enlist as commander of a small band of speculatores (scouts) who will ride into Germania and try to do just that. He will have the rank of legate — an ambassador — and Carrus, who s very popular with many of the tribes, will serve as his decurion (centurion for cavalry.) For Marcellus this is a two-fold win: he gains a senatorial rank! and he washes away the stink of his early release from the military (with full honors) for aiding in stopping his commander from a mutiny. He’s a snitch.

He takes the commission, and his companion all join the mission with him. We left with them getting ready to fill the rest of their ranks for the trip over the wall and into barbarian territory.

Nights like this there’s not a lot of “kill the monster, get the treasure”, but it was good set-up for the characters. We got our first look at Michael the angel and his obfuscation while directing Icio; we also got the implication on Aurelius’ apparition that he is a son or a hero of Apollo (hence the raven.) What is dangerous enough to pull the Christian and Roman gods together? We got more background on Aurelius — his dead girlfriend and an attempted forced marriage by his family caused him to run to Europe, similarly that’s why Calvinus is in exile. Marcellus is a loyal Roman, but a snitch with an elven common law wife in Britannia and possibly a kid…and a friend to the new emperor-to-be. Only Carrus didn’t get much fleshing out because the player was out for the night.

Not every night have to be about hack and slashing. So far, our heroes greatest rewards have been a handful of gold coins and a sword or battleaxe. Focusing on character development and story moves the game away from the more traditional (and in my opinion, lazy) dungeon crawl toward something much more interesting. The only sticking point, really, is the abundance of magic 5th Edition wants to throw at all the characters. The cleric, bard, and monk all have a certain bit of magic to them — the latter because of his aasimar heritage; the more gritty, alternate history version of the game is occasionally hampered by this, so the explanation — thus far — has been that these are all extraordinary people brought together by divine machination for an important purpose.

So far, so good, considering I haven’t run D&D since high school, 35 years ago.

Man, I’m getting old…

 

 

So, we were down two players but decided to press on, as it gave one of the new players some more screen time, so to speak. We opened up on the cleric, who was split off from the party because the player was away doing a birthday dinner with his wife (Really! Some people’s priorities! chuckle…) Aiding the Prefect of Ariolica and their main force of 80 Vigiles from the city, with another 60 or so dwarves from the Jura Mountans — Jurahold, home to one of the PCs, Carrus Zwergi (aka Carrus the Vandal Killer, aka Carrus the Goblin Killer…)

The Romans meet the goblins of the Vanhalis clan of Vandals on a snow-covered foot path a few hundred yards from the abandoned dwarven town they’ve been renovating — or rather their captives taken from Timo’s Ford have been renovating — and Augustinius the Cleric tries to help Prefect Abrecan convince them to give up their hostages and leave the area. The task is made harder by the angry dwarven contingent, that want their leader, Smaigo Zwergifuhr — killed just before the introduction of Carrus and two other characters — avenged. The goblins know they are on the back foot here, but Augustinius’ Insight test gives him the realization that with their women and children only a few minutes away, these Vandals are going to fight to the death if they think they can find a way out of this.

They try to defuse the situation but a runner from the village comes bearing news of the raid the other characters conducted the game session before. This led to a battle between highly unmatched forces…but big ones. So, what to do to manage a mass combat sequence in Dungeons & Dragons? A fight like this is generally outside the tropes of the game, at least at the most basic level. My first thought was “Crap, I’ve got to cobble together some mass combat rules!” My second thought was — “Why can’t i just manage this like a swarm? There are swarms of rats, bats, insects, etc..why can’t we have a big swarm, like a “force” with stats like a creature and just have a player roll for the Roman force, and another for the Vandals?” (I still think this is a viable idea, by the way!)

Then I bothered to google “D&D 5e mass combat rules” and found a quick and dirty set of mechanics from the Unearthed Arcana setting. (Here you go.) The basic idea is to have a “leader” and use his challenge rating plus a modifier for the number of folks. This is your Battle Rating. This gets added to your attack roll on a d20 and based off of the failure or level of success, you find out if the other force is routed or destroyed, etc. There is a morale system (the Romans started with a +2 for steady, and the goblins +4 for “highly motivated”) which adds into the commander’s initiative test and for whether the forces hold or break. It’s simple, it’s quick, and it does suggest that you zoom in periodically to let the characters do their stuff — in this case, the cleric got to throw a few spells around, but the Vandals quickly were overrun and chased back to their village.

Meanwhile, the other portion of the party planned and executed an excellent feint to draw the last of the Vandal warriors into the back door of the cavern the bad guys had been holding their hostages, where they could winnow their numbers down. The heroes then bashed them up with aplomb. I really am shocked by how effective even 1st level characters are in 5th Edition, but by Level 3, they are positively lethal, especially the fighter (including the spell-less ranger class that Carrus is) and monk classes. Magicians are pretty effective, as well; cantrips are now useful, rather than pathetic. (Lookin’ at you, Mage Hand.)

With the Vandals vanquished, our heroes rejoined the Roman and dwarven forces in the village. the women and children were chained and taken by to Ariolica for the slave markets, even though goblins are considered lazy and untrustworthy laborers. Which brought up a thing consistently raising its head — alignment. What’s “good” and what’s “evil?” Icio, the Christian monk has some pretty strong opinions on that, including the worship of false gods…but his fellows are “good” and worship other gods. Lawful is pretty straightforward — slavery was legal and a form of punishment (as was simply killing everyone and razing the village…but these are good guys) in Rome (and until 1792, save for the occasional experiment here and there, legal and normal in almost every country.

So what’s good and evil? If a follower of Satan, or Loki, or Dionysus, for that matter, does things that are “godly”…are they good? A similar conversation on this can be found in Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates, if you want to read about a fat old blowhard that pissed off a  town enough they made him drink hemlock.

Since I wanted a game that wasn’t the usual high fantasy shtick, I’ve found myself with a campaign in which moral and religious questions are central, and the heroes might not be all that. It also meant that raiding a goblin village where the bad guys had been on the run from other worse guys meant no magical items and not bags of loot randomly dispersed about the premises…their reward was in good dispatches to the emperor, in the good will of the people around them, for the monk the conversion of a village, and some coin here and there. The biggest rewards were a warhammer made by the finest blacksmith in the hold (Carrus’ father, actually) and a similarly excellent gladius for the former legionnaire, Marcellius — a +1 to hit for their great balance and workmanship.

That brought the first volume of our D&D game to a close. We left off with the characters deciding to head north for Augustus Treverorum with the dispatches of the action for the emperor. But even on horseback, with the snow the best speed they can hope for is 10 days to get there…and a lot can happen in a week.

So…my daughter was playing “animal rescue” with me this morning and at one point we needed to leave the HQ in her cardboard box “jetski snowmobile…with wings that pop out…” to save the jaguars. We were going to find them at the jaguar temple.

So — the next adventure scenario for fate and Ubiquity will be Secrets of the Jaguar Temple. It will take place in Mexico, most likely, about 1937. There will be a temple. And jaguars. No word yet on the possibility of jetskis that turn into snowmobiles.

 

I started work on our sourcebook for 1930s Shanghai. Most likely, this will be a system-neutral product, but may wind up having appendices for Fate and Ubiquity. Right now, I’m in the first writing pass, and this should take a week or two. After that, it’ll be nailing down any system-oriented stuff we might want added, and then a pass for possible fiction interludes and a canned adventure or two. The target page count is 80-100 pages, once art is added.

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So far, you can look forward to information on customs, communications, the nightlife of International Settlement, the expatriate communities of White Russians and Jews. There is a section on the Shanghai Municipal Police force and the Shanghai Volunteer militia. There’s going to b a chapter on the Green Gang — the criminal organization tied tightly to the Nationalist government, as well as information on the espionage agencies active in the city.

I’ve found some excellent maps that will most likely need to be worked over by a cartographer to make work for the book, and tons of public domain photos of the city.

Right now, I’m hoping on a late summer release.