Since starting this campaign, I’ve been going out of my way to avoid the usual high fantasy tropes associated with Dungeons and Dragons. This is a bit difficult due to some of the game mechanics which enshrine these same themes. I avoided having magic users or even particularly “monstrous” creatures show up for the first few months of the game. The goblins and hobgoblins that are stand ins for the Vandal and Quadi/Goths of history is more to highlight the racial and cultural differences in physical form. They’re not really “magical” things. I originally wanted to limit the number of magic users in the party, as well, but decided to hold fire on that. As a result, we have a bard, cleric, and an aasimar monk (whose class doesn’t give him spells, but does enhance his intrinsic “supernatural” being.) They all have [beep]ing magic. I did use the spelless ranger class from the one Codex WOTC put out for Carrus, and the last character is a fighter.

This required me to start coming up with a story reason for why we have all these guys together. The answer: they are pawns of forces larger than they are, and have been brought together to fight something that requires their combined abilities. that has also requires me to start fleshing out the cosmology of our alternate Roman Europe. A lot of this is now hanging on the nature of the aasimar, Icio’s, nature — what exactly are these demi-angels? Augustinian and Calvinus (the bard) are pantheists, and they appear to have Apollo as a benefactor. We’ve also met Pluto (and possibly Minerva…) What are these gods, and what is their relation to angels and the “One True God” of Icio’s faith? (We’ve established that Jesus of Nazareth was an aasimar, like Icio.)

Working within the mechanics to explain the game world is an interesting exercise for me. Normally, I bend the rules to suit the campaign and story, as needed, but having a couple of rules lawyers who know the system — and using them as a resource, rather than a foil — is tailoring the game universe to explain why these mechanics work. It’s an uncomfortable proposition for me as a GM, but it’s proving to be useful experience.

However, the most annoying and egregious of the D&D tropes came to the fore during the wrap-up of the last session —  the speed with which the heroes heal. One of the conceits about hit points is that they don’t really track physical damage, but a sort of aggregate of luck, stamina, physical injury, fear or mental injury. I’ve been trying to take this into account with things like Carrus the Dwarf taking damage in the form of his one beard braid being cut off in a fight, which distracted, angered, and also shook his courage. (He loses those beard braids…), or the creeping fear of having multiple opponents swinging at you. However, during the last session in which the characters took necrotic damage from one of the magic-users. The description of having the life sucked out of them was meant to convey the fear, pain, and damage that was being done. They were getting banged up, badly, particularly augustinian, who had cast a warding bond to soak some of the damage that they had anticipated Legate Marcellus was going to take going mano y mano with a hobgoblin.

Yet, with a few hours rest, some hit dice use, and some healing spells, everyone was 90-100% by the time events unfolded this session. I’ll admit — I’ve always hated the fast healing in some RPGs. I acknowledge, and even support, the notion the PCs are exceptional creatures…but I think a few days to bounce back from getting your ass kicked seems appropriate.

Bitch-fest complete.

This week picked up with most of the characters trying to grab a sleep or rest (Icio was meditating in the gate tower so he could keep an eye on things) after they killed the leader of the Quadi and his tiefling advisor.  Marcellus, as the presumptive commander of the garrison, was preparing their defense, and Carrus was attempting to get his cavalry ready.

Over the wall, the Quadi lit bonfires and made a god-awful racket that culminated with their burning their leader, Brutharius, on a pyre. The enemy then retreated to their bonfires for some kind of rally that eventually led to the repeated chanting of “Lomar! Lomar!” — they’d chosen their new leader.

The point to this vignette was to 1) provide an alien-ness to the quadi, 2) create a sense of forbodding, and 3) flesh out their society and make them more real than just a monster listing in the Volo’s Guide ot Monsters. (A good resource, by the way!) They don’t bury, like the Christians and Romans; they have some kind of democratic-ish means for choosing their leadership. This could give some insight for how the polity of the Quadi is run.

Around midnight, the Quadi attack begins when Icio and Marcellus start hearing their soldiers and the civilians taking refuge in the castrum start freaking out. Looking down, they can see something boiling out of the sewers and buildings around the fortress — rats! Hundred, thousands of rats swarm through the place, biting and panicking the people inside. It wakes the other characters, and Carrus — who had dropped off in the stables — wakes to find himself covered in biting, squealing vermin!

Much of the night revolved around fighting this mass of rats, who were keeping the fortress from presenting a solid defense. The best part of the evening was the total, epic, failure of both Calvinus and Augustinian on their Wisdom saves versus the rats. Augustinian hasn’t failed a fear check ever. Hordes of goblins and hobgoblins: fine. Strange shadow creature that sucks your soul out? No huhu. Trolls: well, he is impressive, but so what? Rats? Shreaking like a cheerleader at an away game. They aren’t able to even get their clothes and armor on, fighting in their nightshirts. Even when they are doing well, like when Calvinus gets a good shatter — they get showered with rat gore, and just that much more distressed. It was great comic relief.

Icio, who has been THE bad-ass in the game, promptly biffs a bunch of his rolls: 1s around the horn on fighting, his wisdom save when, having fallen, he gets swarmed by rats. He finally retreats to the wall to be “more help.”

While all of this is happening, the enemy starts trying to climb the east wall — leading to Marcellus having to fight Vandals while directing fire and defense. The Quadi let fly with catapults, battering the south wall of the fortress. For this portion i was using a combination of the Unearthed Arcana mass combat rules for the huge groups of combatants, with Marcellus as the commander. For the artillery exchanges, I was simply using the stats for catapults, but I had to extrapolate the hit points of the castrum walls. I gave each 100′ portion 500HP and a damage threshold of 20HP. That means that using the fixed damage of the catapults, the walls were taking 7HP from each hit. After an hour or so of combat, the south wall had two sections with 72HP damage. Holding, but damaged…

While the other characters mostly fought rats, Marcellus had to direct the battle which saw the century of archers on the walls absolutely destroy the Vandal skirmishers that had been trying to mount the eastern wall. They eliminated the skirmishers, and broke the morale of the rest of that company-strength unit, causing them to abandon the field. To the south, the Quadi attempted to use a ram on the gate, but were killed off by the archers and balista on that wall.

In the end, the Romans lost 26 soldiers to fire caused by the small catapults the Vandals had been using to hurl flaming kindling and oil, and another 50 or so civilians and soldiers injured by the rats. Augustinian used purify food and water to undo the damage the rats were sent to do: despoil the food supplies. Several swarms got into the stores before they retreated as quickly and mysteroiusly as they had appeared. (This coincided with the Vandal [goblins] that had been controlling them decamping.) The Vandals lost 100 soldiers, and another 50 left the battle. The Quadi suffered — between the last two sessions — about 50 of roughly 600 soldiers.

With the fortress safe for the time being, the characters took the opportunity to switch from the more realistic siege plot to the more D&D appropriate hero moves. Using an invisibility spell, they disguised Icio, who snuck behind the lines of the Quadi to get to their catapults, where he poured “Greek fire” on them before running back to the castrum. At that point, with a spectacular roll that was buffed by the bard’s inspiration and cleric’s bless, Marcellus and one of the NPCs, the spy Benarix (who had returned from his mission to Lenta and slipped through the Vandal lines during the fight) each got a 32 (critical success for the latter) to hit the catapults with flaming arrows.

Now, with about 20% of their forces killed in a single day of fighting, four of their catapults out of commission, and a Romans still safe behind their walls, the Quadi are settling in to wait for disease and famine to take the Romans down…n ot knowing this tactic has also failed.

The siege story was an attempt to introduce the creepy mystical element and mix is with the more realistic war plot. It worked decently and gave all of the heroes a chance to kick ass and shine (or entertain, in the case of the bard/cleric). In the end, using their skills in concert allowed them to not just defend the fortification, but do real damage to the bad guys.

The first few episodes were about getting the characters together and starting to define the world and the hazards. The next leg — where they traveled through Germania and met the Quadi — was to give them a chance to slowly delve into the politics, but to also introduce the meta-plot, some kind of fight between dieties and an “adversary”. This culminated with the fight at Castrum Stativa, in which they (if they survive) will have made a name for themselves as heroes and should get them to 5th level. In 5th Edition, this seems to be the point where characters jump from the regional hero to the sort of mythic hero (early in their careers), that can finally go toe-to-toe with a fairly strong opponent.

The next volume of this game will see them start to do the sort of thing Greco-Roman heroes are supposed to — search for the McGuffin, fight bigger bads, until they hit their main baddie that will define their story.