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…