We had a week off as half the group was off on travel, but this week we picked up right where we left off. (Recap here.) The characters aided the village of Dal Owyn with their medical skills and Myrddin with outright magic to heal one of the villagers Fianna had shot through the leg with an arrow. While they were about this, Faolin (in wolf form) had slipped away to change back to human and get dressed. As they were finishing helping the villagers and trying to explain what had happened to them, Aiden’s father and the clan leader, Brann, arrived with Aiden’s cousin…Aiden, who had been killed in a case of mistaken identity by the pair of assassins hunting for him.

This led to a confrontation between Brann and his brother Gwynn, father of the dead boy. What had his son done to bring professional assassins, magic-users, upon them!?! The prefect, Ardanus Britannicus intended to find out. With the aid of Fianna and Faolin, they woke the assassin they had critically injured and questioned him. “The boy — he doesn’t even know who he is, does he?” the man asked. He’s being hunted because o who his father is. But Aiden understood his father to be a simple Roman soldier. It’s who he is now that matters, and that is why Tribune Gallicius — a member of the court of the “King of Britain”, the comte britannicus, Magnus Maximus. Why would an adviser of the most powerful man in Britain be looking to kill as 15 year old boy? Because his father is Quintus Marcellus Quadius Corinthanus Augustus: the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire!

They speculated on why they might be worried about the boy. Since the battle between demons and angels at the River Styx (the denouement of our first D&D game), and the release of the ancient gods and creatures into the world, Marcellus had been appointed the eastern emperor at the death of Valens by his friend Gratian, the western emperor. Marcellus successfully turned the Gothic invasion with the aid of the Olympians that had returned. This secured his position in Constantinople, but it also caused the Eastern Empire to begin sliding back to paganism. Here in the Western Empire, Nicaean Christianity was still the official religion — one to which Magnus Maximus and his uncle, the famed general (and in the real world the man who would have been the Eastern Emperor), Theodosius ascribe.

Aiden’s parents affirmed that he and his mother were sent into hiding because Marcellus could not protect them in Britain, and could not safely transport them to Constantinople. They kept the secret from him, and the tribe, to keep them all safe. This revelation nearly led to a fight between Brann and Gwynn, but this was mitigated by some enchantment on Myrddin’s part.

After a burial and wake that evening, the party traveled to Corinium, Aiden going against his parents’ wishes. People are hunting him; they thought it too dangerous. Myrddin has taken an interest in the boy, whom he suspects has a destiny. The siblings Fianna and Faolin wanted to shop for clothes and other things, now that they have money for the first time. The prefect wanted to check in with his tribune in town and get a lay of the land.

There was some character interaction bits, but Prefect Britannicus learned quickly from the tribune that things are happening in Britain and the empire. The soldiers are calling for a vote about Gratian, whom they see as having abandoned the faith, and to select Magnus Maximus as the new emperor. He is aware of the murder, that they captured one of the miscreants, and that the boy they were hunting is still alive. He orders Britannicus to bring the boy to him, but the prefect is suspicious of the motives. This moment played into several of his flaws — his contrarian nature, his sense of honesty, and his duty as a Roman officer. Torn by what to do, he agreed, but the tribune thinks he is playing for time.

The conversation was overheard by Myrddin, who was using a crow to spy on the meeting. As soon as Britannicus left the room, the tribune ordered the escaped assassin, a cambion (half demon) to hunt the boy down. With this knowledge, he found the rest of the party right after Britannicus had, but Aiden noticed there were Roman troops watching them. Something is afoot? Reacting to the perceived danger, Fianna drew her bow on Britannicus; did he mean them harm? The action, however, spurred the legionnaires into action and we ended the night with the party surrounded by trained Roman soldiers, Fianna holding another character (the prefect) at arrow point, and Myrddin spotting the cambion lurking above them on the rooftops.

Originally, I wanted to do a slower burn on this campaign, but the pacing so far feels better. The gang is thrown together, a mystery leads to a conspiracy of imperial scale, and they are suddenly on the outs with the legitimate authority. Now, maybe I should have a plan for where we’re going…

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So this week, the crew is getting together to fire up the next chapter/season/volume of our late antiquity fantasy game. The first run was set in AUC1125 (375AD) and revolved around a group of people that came together during a raid on their caravan, got tapped by Emperor Gratian to sound the tribes in Germania, and found out they were all destined to come together to help fight the forces of evil. You know, that ol’ chesnut. It wound up with a finale that included angels and demon hordes leading people into battle to stop Satan from “opening the veil” so he could attack Heaven. What they wound up doing was releasing the ancient gods back into the world, which put paid to Satan’s plans (and Yahweh’s) pretty smartly.

We’ll be picking up the action eight years later in Britannia, on the eve of Magnus Maximus pulling every Roman and foederati troop he can lay his hands on out of the isle for a coup attempt on Emperor Gratian, who gave the Eastern Empire to the leader of our party in the last game, and who — supported by Olympians — has restored paganism to the Eastern empire. Magnus, and his uncle Theodosius (the real eastern emperor at this time) are supporters of Nicean Christianity and want to crush Gratian and Marcellus (now Emperor Marcellianus) and get the thrones they feel are rightfully theirs.

The characters include: Aiden mac Quint, Marcellus’ son by a Celtic (elven) woman while he was stationed in Britannia; Sigmon Hallig, a disgraced Saxon pirate captain who now hunts bounties and acts as protection muscle; Arden mac Wynn, the Briton prefect for the Romans in the area near the Cotswolds; Faolan mac Anyn, a druid who has been cursed to lycanthropy on the full moon, but who can control his shapeshifting the rest of the time; his sister, Fianna, a huntress; and lastly Myrddin Wyllt…a young Merlin who is interested in the future of Aiden. The campaign, like the last one, will start small scale — local missions and mysteries (we’re starting with a murder mystery), and building out to include the imperial politics of Magnus turning on Gratian, which will eventually take us to Gaul and Germania, and perhaps to a meeting with Aiden’s father in Constantinople.

The first campaign was run in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, but after the nostalgia of playing D&D again (and in a set of rules so close to the old AD&D, but improved) wore off, I started to remember the things I didn’t like. Magic is weird, really. I never liked the Vancian style of spellbooks. Sure the warlock class got much closer to my idea of how magic should work, but it was, to put it mildly, fiddly. All of D&D is crammed with rules for almost every occasion, and I threw a lot of it out to keep it simple. The other thing — the healing of D&D drives me f@#$ing nuts. Hey, I almost got my arm chopped off, but a 15 minute nap and I’m good as gold. A lot of this is an artifact of the X number of encounters/day model of dungeon crawling. It simply didn’t fit the more gritty atmosphere I wanted.

What to use? Runequest 6/ Mythras? It’s got some good stuff, and their Mythic Britain sourcebook is absofreakin’-lutely outstanding. It’s easily one of the best sourcebooks for a game I’ve read, and I pulled a lot from it, even though its setting is about a century later than where we are. I don’t know the system that well, and don’t want to read a big-a@$$ book right now. The One Ring from Cubicle 7. Also good, but I would have to relearn it, and it’s a bit too high fantasy for me. Don’t mention Palladium; it was a hot mess 30 years ago and hasn’t much improved. Fate? A possibility that I entertained for a while. I even picked up the Fate System Toolkit and a few fantasy oriented settings on DriveThruRPG, but none of them quite did it for me…but they were close. Savage Worlds is another that was considered for a moment, but I find the system too quirky and I hate the exploding die mechanic.

Eventually, I started looking at the game system that I’ve been slowly putting together for our publishing house, Black Campbell Entertainment. It’s got a lot of inspiration from various sources, but the core mechanic is very simple and with a bit of tweaking, would work for fantasy. Hell, we need to playtest it…so, tomorrow, I start running a game with the first game rules I’ve had to write in six years. The last time I did this big a rules project was in the ’90s. It should be interesting to see how it goes and if the players respond well. If not, well, Fate or D&D would both work well.

We picked up this week with our 5th edition Dungons & Dragons campaign in the aftermath of the fight between the characters and a pair of Furies. It was looking like a TPK in the making when the monk character, Icio, called on his patron angel, Michael, to bail them out. What they got was a full throwdown between lesser gods that half wrecked the official residence of the Praetor of Aquileia. With two players down — one at a convention in England and one on route to GenCon, I decided to concentrate on the three players’ concerns.

The next morning found Carrus getting his staff of blacksmiths working on the armor and weapons they had taken from the furies. With 20 rolled, he was able to deduce that the weapons and armor aren’t metal, but perhaps some kind of porcelain — light, heat and cold-resistant, and tougher than the best iron. Yet Michael’s arrows went through them like butter, burning a clean hole through the material. The swords the Furies used went through Marcellus’ breastplate similarly cleanly. He hasn’t worked out all the secrets, but he is on the path to learning how to make the stuff.

Marcellus left his tent to find Icio waiting for him. This “Anathema” which had so rattled the Furies and Michael is of great concern to him. Could she really be a relation? What the hell was she? They gathered up Carrus and went to search the city for her. (We assumed Calvinus was busy trying to soothe his father’s concerns about powerful mystical creatures ripping up his town, while Augustinian was researching the information on her.)

They find her in a mariners’ inn by the wharf, sequestered on the third floor away from the other guests. The owner of the inn was terrified of her, but did not want to anger her. After having him clear out the inn (Marcellus is enjoying his imperium), they knocked on the door. The Anathema was waiting, and was open to their questions. Her attitude toward the entire affair was blasé, and she seemed entirely unconcerned to have armed men in the room with her. Marcellus noted she seemed to have a pretty good handle on the entire situation.

What they learned: she claims to be in the service of Hades (she tends to call the gods by their Greek names) and was sent to aid them in their quest. Icio asked her parentage — he calls her brother, but he doesn’t think she means in Christ. She tells him they have the same father. He is not the son of Zaccharius the carpenter; he is the son of Michael. She is the daughter of Michael and Soteria — the mother of angels. Soteria has a much older name: Hecate, the goddess of magic, possibility, and choice. The Anathema is what the various sides call her for she is not supposed to exist — just like the barukhim and nephalhim, the children of angels and demons with humans — she is a child of “good and evil.” Her given name is Chthonia. (No, you don’t actually pronounce the “ch” in a chth blend — it’s “Thonia”.)

If Sataniel manages to raise the Shadow, the various realms would once against be accessible, and the gods of old would be able to interfere in the affairs of Man. Satan could engage in his war against Heaven. When they ask her for her aid, she tells them that is her purpose.

On their way back to the camp, they were waylaid by one of the vigiles, the town guard. There is a problem on the north wall… they arrive to find a small force of satyrs and centaurs! Led by Calacites (King of the Satyrs of Dalmatia) they have been searching the countryside for his daughter: Carona. Instead of being an orphan who fled the destruction of her village, she was drawn out into the world by her curiosity. He has come to save her from the world of Men.

This led to an uncomfortable and amusing exchange where Carrus had to confirm she was here, and in the end — with a choice between having his pregnant girlfriend taken away to live with the satyrs or keeping her with him, he suggested marriage. The satyrs, knowing what a monumentally bad idea this is, managed to contain their mirth and Calacites accepted. We ended the night with his marriage to Carona.

 

 

Our Dungeons & Dragons game got off to a late start last night, but jumped straight to the action. We had cliffhangered last week after the first round of combat between the party and a pair of Erinyes (Furies) with a pair of Hell Hounds in tow and Bayla, the succubus that has been plaguing the bard, Calvinus, with thoughts of betraying his comrades, sex, and murder. (How’s that for a sentence..?)

The first round saw the Legate Quintus Marcellus Quadius attack with minimal effect Poena (Indignation), who then gutted him and dropped to near dead. The poisoned blade cut through his armor like butter and was killing him quickly. Invidia (Malice) had injured the monk, Icio, badly, as well. Calvinus had managed to slow the hell hounds with shatter, doing enough damage to stun them. Augustinian had cast a cure wounds and a lesser restoration on Marcellus to prevent his death. Carrus the dwarf had found himself using a bench as a shield, and found his sword almost useless.

I quickly realized that we were looking at a TPK (total party kill for the uninitiated) within a few rounds. Over the week, I was thinking of how to save their butts, and decided i would throw a character in that I had crated, should they need more firepower.

We started with round 2: Marcellus woke from his near death experience to the awful sensation of his guts dragging themselves back into his body from the healing and restoration combo. Calvinus distracted Poena long enough for her not to attack Carrus, then crawled under the table to get away. Augustinian hit Marcellus with protection from evil. Carrus realized he didn’t have anything that would really hurt the fury, so he used his sword — with an excellent throw — to cut the candelabra over her head, which with Calvinus’ action lost her an action. He then whipped a large silver serving tray, discus style, into her face. (Which then ricocheted into the back of the recovering Marcellus’ head.) The hell hounds snapped out of their stupor but wouldn’t have an attack until the next round. Icio and Invidia were locked in a battle, flying above the others’ head and damaging candelabras, walls, and other things while wailing away at each other. With some lucky rolls, he was able to avoid dying, but used his reaction to attempt to call on his angel, Michael, to aid him.

Bayla the succubus made a last attempt to win over Calvinus, then switched from the carrot to the stick. That was when she and the furies noted the arrival of a new figure — a tall woman in a hooded leather dress and leggings, pale skinned with eyes so light blue or white they almost seemed to glow, and a long barbed tail, similar to that of a nephalhim (the damned or what we’re calling tiefling.) They exclaimed with disgust the appearance of “the Anathema.” With a few graceful moves and contralto utterances, she generated an eldritch spear that when throw broke into two and injured the furies.

The next rounds saw Marcellus and Icio battling the two furies with limited effect using the broken-in-two blesse and silver-tipped quarterstaff of the monk. Calvinus was able to use his songs to try and throw the furies off their game, and the hell hounds — unleashed on the Anathema by Poena — cut loose with their fire breath, singing Carrus’ beloved beard, his eyebrows, and the left side of his hair off, not to mention the clothes not covered by his centurion armor. Tables and walls were set alight. Augustinian was cuaght by Poena in a rope of entanglement, which almost broke his concentration on the protection spell…

…and that’s when Michael arrived. The angel was written up as a solar with a few tweaks. He burst through the window, shot flaming arrows into the furies and succubus (driving the latter to disappear and run for it.)  The furies responded and soon the room was awash with flaming swords, daylight cast by the Anathema, and then falling husks of armor and discarded weaponry as the Erinyes were taken down by Michael and Icio, wih the aid of the Anathema.

While normally, it’s a good idea to make sure the PCs, the heroes, are the ones that get the spotlight for fights like this, the fact they were hugely outclassed seemed to make this a good time to use a literal deus ex machina (which is, to be fair, build into the aasimar character, Icio.) Additionally, it set the stakes dramatically higher, and created an air of awe and fear. They were no longer fighting small armies in Germania; they are taking on gods and angels.

MIchael then confronted the Anathema, who doffed her hood to reveal the pale white coloring of an aasimar, but the horns, along with the obvious cloven hooves and tail or a tiefling. When Icio asked why she aided them, she told him, “My mother thought you would need my help, brother…”

Michael informed her she should stay clear of them, but she told him she could not. She had been tasked by the Lord of the Underworld, her master, to assist them. All the while, she waited, arms wide, for Michael to smite her…but he cleared off. Calvinus was the only one to hear her say, “I thought not, father.”

Icio was still in shock by the whole affair — the furies, Michael finally intervening, and this new creature. “Are we related?” he asked her. “Of course we are, brother.” Not brother as in his being a monk, but her brother. “How are we related?” he asked. “We come from the same seed.” “Who is your mother?” “She who stands at the crossroads and sees all possibilities.”With that, she left, telling them, “You’ll see me soon.”

But his father is Zaccharius, a carpenter! Calvinus informed him of her father comment, which has left him stunned…could this be a trick of Satan? He knows the Adversary has taken an interest in him. Yet, Michael did not smite her when he had the chance.

We ended there, with Carrus the dwarf shaving forlornly, and taking an interest in the weaponry and armor the furies left behind when they were killed(?)

This episode had some great reveals and managed to start tying Greco-Roman and Christian myth together. I’ll be doing a lot of reading on the Chaldean Oracles and Julian the Apostate this week, which will link Yahweh/Jehovah, the “Shadow” that supposedly keeps the various planes separated to protect the world of Man from the gods, and the Anathema’s mother. It also fleshes out more of Icio’s backstory with Michael, hints at the nature of angels vis-a-vis the old gods, as well as that of the barukhim (aasimar) and nephellhin (tiefling.)

After a week’s hiatus while I helped a friend move across country, the group got together for the next installment of our Dungeons & Dragons game. The had previously fought off some religious zealots who saw Carona, the satyress, as a ‘demonic creature” and the group as tainted by their association with her. They had discovered the plot was initiated by a local priest who admitted that the existence of Icio the Monk and his kind (aasimar, or “barukhim” (the blessed) in this campaign) were a direct threat to the Nicene sect of Christianity in the Western Empire, especially with the arrival of the new 4 year old emperor as his empress-regent mother, an Arian Christian.

Legate Quintus Marcellus Quadius, recently honored by the throne for his defense of Castra Stativa, was given a legion to go to Achaia in search of the River Styx and the “Shadow” — a mystical veil separating the world from the other planes of existence. A coalition of creatures — fallen angels and other monstrous things trapped on earth when the Shadow fell — are looking to invade Hades (the only plane that cannot be walled off) and release the denizens of Tartarus to invade heaven.

They marched to Aquileia, the northern-most port on the Mare Hadriatica and home to the family of Marcus Calvinus, their bard. Along the way, a few vignettes showed the growing influence the succubus Bayla was having on him. After their night together, she has been temptinghim with telepathic thoughts of sex and murder, and how he could be “a king in the new world.” Carrus the dwarf has been feeling the pressure of Carona’s pregnancy, while getting increasingly protective of her. Marcellus is feeling the weight of command — he was a discharged mercenary only a few months ago! — and Augustinian the cleric has been wrestling with the issues of morality and the strengths of monotheism in that respect, and what it means in a world where they’ve had demonstrable proof of gods other than Icio’s “one true god.”

On arrival in Aquileia, they found that Calvinus’ father, who had cast his “whore of an entertainer” son out of the city after he refused to marry the daughter of an influential Christian, was now the praetor urbanis (mayor) of the city, and his brother Lucius the head of the family’s lucrative shipping business. He’s is unquestionably the power in town, even lording it over the technically higher ranking corrector of the province. They are welcomed, and Calvinus finds out his father is impressed and proud of his black sheep of a son for his heroism and service to Rome. He also makes it very obvious that it’s time the boy, like the rest of the family, bite the bullet and convert to Christianity. It doesn’t matter, his father tells him, it he believes…it’s the appearance that matters.

Augustinian hit the local library and managed to finagle his way into seeing some of the “restricted” works (magical tomes) to find a way to help excise the succubus from Calvinus’ mind. He then started work on a crucifix the bard could wear that would give protection from evil. This would allow the character another charisma save to break the bond with the creature.

Marcellus worked with the local legate navalis (admiral) to secure the six triremes and command crews necessary to move the legion and their equipment. Their mules, however, would need to be abandoned, as this would require almost a week to get enough vessels together to move them all. As it is, two of the ships will have to be contracted for with the Calvinus family.

Icio met with the local archbishop, Valerianus, who is pushing him to speak out against Arianism and Homousian sects of Christianity (even though Icio is starting to realize they may be correct…) During the conversation, he learns that many of his ‘barukhim” brothers are siding with these now-heretical groups against the Nicene establishment in Rome. Returning to the legion’s camp from the meeting, he is accosted by a beggar that tells him the establishment won’t long need his services, and eventually they will cast him out as a liability. (Damn it, Satan, bugger off!)

That evening, a state function for the arrival of the Marcellus and Calvinus is had at the praetor’s residence. In the midst of their meal, the windows burst in as a pair of winged women, armored in black with red Greek inscriptions, incredibly tall and beautiful, invade the dinner to inform Marcellus and crew they will never reach the River Styx…alive! These creatures — furies, Augustinian thinks — have been trapped on Earth and have banded together with Satan to break down the Shadow. They are accompanied by a pair of hell hounds, and Bayla, Calvinus’ tormentor, who is offering him a chance to join them, rather than die with his friends.

Up until this point in the campaign, the characters have been munching through the bad guys with some ease. Even the Dark Man and the troll, Dufex, have only given them some challenge (but one that once they got their act together, they defeated with ease.) I figured I would ramp things up…apparently, too much. One of these Erinyes would most likely have provided them a real fight, but two plus the others was proving in a single round to be too much.

Poena (“Indignation”) blocked Marcellus’ action surged attack with ease, then cut him down to -4HP with a single blow, then seriously injured Augustinian. Invidia (“Malice”), the other fury, tore Icio (probably out biggest bad ass) up and nearly put him out of the fight — again with a single blow. The two hell hounds were badly injured and stunned by Calvinus’ use of shatter, and Carrus was unable to even land a blow.

Things were looking pretty dire for the crew when we knocked off for the night…

So one thing learned, while lower level characters are much more robust and powerful in 5th edition than the old AD&D I remember, they don’t really take off until 5th level. I over-gunned them, thinking that they would once again coordinate well enough to drop one of the Erinyes. Two was too much, and the addition of the extra baddies seems to ensure my first TPK in my 30+ years of gaming.

There is a possible out, a deus ex machina that is built into Icio’s character, and which the player was considering: asking for the aid of his angelic guardian. Could he call on Michael to help him?

I guess we’ll see.

After a week off, our group picked up where we left off with our Dungeons & Dragons game. They had gotten to Mediolanum, the new capital of the Western Roman Empire, and had been lauded for their victory over the Quadi in a desperate siege in Germania. They had been feted by the Empress Regent, Justina, whose four year old son Valentinian II has just been made the augustus (senoir emperor) in the Western Empire. (They had been, until now, operating under the orders of the caesar (junior emperor), Valentinian’s 16 year old half brother, Gratian.)

While Marcellus was being personally “entertined” by the empress after a superb charisma test, the others took a drunk Carrus home to the villa they’d been loaned by the government. There, they found a gang of men waiting. They had already set on Carona for being a “demonic and unnatural creature” (she’s a satyr.) The fight jumped off with Icio the monk using his lesser restroation to heal Carrus of him massive drunk — not a pleasant experience! He then let fly with the ghostly angel wings the assimar can manifest and chastised the men to repent their sins and leave the place. It almost works.

Carrus, meanwhile, goes ’80s Schwarzenegger on the six guys that have been attacking Carona, leading to much mayhem and gruesome gore. Augustinian and Calvinus wind up battling a few of the men after the bard had put three of them to sleep. Icio finishes off all but a few who escape after they persist in their attacks.  In the end, the party questions the miscreants and finds out they were put up to this by a Father Thomas who found Carona’s presence with alleged heroes of the empire troubling, and made him question Icio’s faith, and to accuse Carrus (Carona’s lover) of bestiality. The father, apparently, arranged for the staff to be absent the house, as well.

They quickly cleaned up the mess, then retired outside of town to the farm Marcellus’ family owns. While there, he provided his brother with the rewards of his command in Germania — 5000 soldi: enough to buy up a few of the other farms around theirs! Carona was left in the care of the officer’s mother and brother, while the rest of the party returned to the city to confront Father Thomas after his noontime mass.

They learned that Thomas was most likely no the architect of the attack, but he refuses to implicate anyone else. However, during the questioning, Augustinian quickly realizes that Thomas’ string-puller was most likely the archbishop, Ambrose! Thomas lets slip that the aasimar (or “barukhim” [blessed ones] in our game) and their rivals, the tiefling (or “nephalhim” [cursed ones] ) are mistakes; mistakes that could imperil everything the Church is trying to build in Rome. This leads Augustinian to realize that the very nature of these creatures — the aasmiar are supposedly the “same blood” as Christ — are an anathema to concept of trinitarianism the Nicene version of Christianity has settled on a canon. If Jesus wasn’t just the son of god, but god itself, he should have no “brethren.” Icio and his kind lend credence to Arianism — which sees Jesus and the barukhim as literal “children of God.”

Through the course of play, the characters wound up discussing the nature of the Christian schism between Arians (represented by the Empress Regent, the anitpope, and her court) and the Nicene (represented by the Archbishop Ambrose and the Roman Church), but also things like the nature of morality — could you have a true concept of morality with multiple gods, which even Icio had to admit exist as they’ve met Pluto, already? If each god has their own versions of morality, can there be a universal good or evil? Icio countered that his God was the one, true god…his moral dictates, therefore were paramount…a singular version of good and evil. Augustinian admitted that he thought you could not have a true moral compass outside of morality. Calvinus — ever the reprobate — chimed in that morality was completely subjective, echoing the moral relativism of modern day.

Having moral quandaries has been a continuing motif in the game — from the notion of enslaving or executing their enemies (perfectly legal in Roman law), to choosing not to kill a troll because they realized that the creature was too dumb to understand the nature of his action, and now the questions Icio has about the Church: they chose to brand his friend (Carona) demonic, even though he knows she is 1) naturally good, and 2) shows ore mercy and charity than the Christians that came to murder her for their — his — religion.

Court intrigue has already figured into the game with the power plays around Gratian and Justina, but the internal conflicts of the Roman Church are also coming into play and intersecting. As the characters rise through the levels and become more influential in the game universe, these conflicts will impact them more, and in way you just can’t simply punch your way out of. And of course, their upcoming quest is taking them to Achaia (Greece) and the River Styx, where they could very well be facing off against Satan, or Pluto, or something worse…

 

Our Dungeons & Dragons game has steadfastly steered clear of the classic fantasy game tropes and expectations, but has instead focused on an alternate-Late Antiquity setting with classical mythology and Biblical themes, but also is increasingly focused on the question of what “good and evil” is.

The characters are Roman citizens — a former legionnaire who is plucked from obscurity by the young and new emperor that he babysat while on campaign with his father (Marcellus); the cleric from Africa who is traveling the empire trying to find enlightenment (Augustinian); the bard from a good family that exiled him for his “trashy” occupation and refusal to marry an influential Christian girl in the court of Emperor Valens (Calvinus); an anchorite monk who is “barukhim” (a blessed one or aasmiar) and a trained “demon killer” who has been hiding from the world since his mentor was murdered by a nephalim (tiefling), and who has been called into the world by the archangel Michael to fight the armies of the Lie — Satan (Icio); and lastly, an Allemani dwarf (or “zwergi”) from the Alps who has a penchant for killing goblins (Carrus.) They are all “good” in alignment — some chaotic, some lawful.

But what exactly is good? One of the things we encountered early on in the campaign was that Roman law allowed for criminals that were caught — in this case a small village of Vandals (goblins) that had been terrorizing the surrounding countryside and which had taken some people as slaves — to be made slaves. By today’s standards, this is evil with a capital E. However, this was the law at the time, and not considered that much of a moral outrage. Hell, two-thirds of the Roman economy was worked by slaves.

In that case, the good/evil dichotomy wasn’t really that tough. The Vandals had taken Romans as slaves illegally. Rescuing these Roman citizens and enslaving the baddies might be problematic for a 21st Century player, but at the time, there was no question that this was the right thing.

In another instance, they had captured a few assassins that had been sent after them. They had attacked the party, which was by this time under imperial writ. Marcellus was a legate — an ambassador/general. Attacking him was a crime against the state. Executing the miscreants was under his purview. Again, for people raised on Enlightenment notions of due process, opposition to abuse of authority and cruelty, this was…evil. Again, lawful, but evil.

In our last night of play, the party was headed south to Mediolanum to meet the empress regent (Emperor Valentinian II is only four.) following a spectacular victory over a Quadi (hobgoblins as stand-ins for Goths) army, then head to Greece to try and find something called “the Shadow” — some kind of wall between the world and other planes of existence that Satan is looking to tear down. They had stopped in Cambodunum, a ruin of the old capital of the province Raetia and which is sparsely populated. They had found lodging in the distillery of one of the residents, only to be attacked that night by a troll that they had previously encountered, and who had tracked them because it was upset they were profiting from the story that Carrus had killed him.

In the process of fighting the troll, they accidentally blew up the distillery, and the explosion brought an avalanche down on the town. After rescuing their fellows, Carrus, Icio, and Marcellus, were aiding the townspeople in finding a few missing people and some of the livestock. Hearing a scream, they returned to the house of the distiller, which had been badly damaged in the avalanche.

Inside, Augustinian — who had been badly injured — had just wakened. Calvinus and Carona — a satyress they have been traveling with and whom Carrus has taken up with — were taking care of him when they were attacked — the front door kicked in by the troll they’d thought dead in the avalanche an hour prior. Carona panicked and played a frightening strain on her panpies, but before the troll could escape into the night, Augustinian threw a hold creature spell and trapped it. Encouraged by Augustinian to kill the creature, Carona went to cut its throat…but when confronted with a terrified, helpless creature, she couldn’t do it. It was unfair. Wrong.

Evil.

Augustinian shortly after lost his concentration and the troll escaped out to be met by the other characters, who had been returning. Surprised by the blubbering monster that was protesting, “she tried to murder me!” Icio was overcome with a moment of compassion and tried to talk the creature down. It wasn’t an option I’d even considered in the planning for the adventure, but with the monk’s moral compass, and his mission to try to turn evil to good, the player and I were in agreement it was definitely the way to go. He was able to get a good persuasion test and calm the troll a bit. The idea of even talking to it never occurred to the other players — but their characters, it turned out, was another matter.

After establishing that the main beef was the fraud they’d perpetrated by calling Carrus a “troll killer” (something the dwarf desperately wanted to “fix”) and that they couldn’t go around lying about him. The second was that they attacked him for defending his bridge (not quite how it happened, but he is obviously a bit dim.) Marcellus pointed out it was the Roman’s bridge, not his, and that is could be argued the troll stole it. Augustinian piled on about the complexities of property and ownership, and when it was right to attack someone. Perplexed, and well out of his intellectual depth, the troll eventually promised not to haunt bridges looking for victims if they wouldn’t lie about him, then stumped off into the night.

A game about killing monsters and stealing their treasure turned into one about avoiding conflict and attempting (at least on Icio’s part) to teach a troll the Ten Commandments. But more to the point, it was about playing their alignment — an element of the Dungeons & Dragons rules that always annoyed me. There’s always the question of moral relativism when trying to define good or evil, but in a game where those distinctions tie to rules that can affect how or if a spell works on a creature, how your character interacts with others, or how they behave in general, it’s important to figure out (in game terms) what they mean.

The encounter left Icio and Augustinian questioning the nature of morality, and if it could even truly exist in a poly- or pantheistic framework, where every god had an area of authority and subjective morality. Carrus was frustrated — he knew, in some way, they did the right thing, but it still felt wrong to let the creature go! Marcellus and Calvinus didn’t quite know what to think…

These quandaries bring up some interesting questions. If you serve an “evil” god, but your intent is to follow the precepts of that deity, are you doing evil or good? A real world example might by the thugee of India, who worship Kali, and who would waylay and murder travelers as a form of worship. Is that evil? The British overlords of India certainly thought so (as, I suspect, did the victims), but what did they think? Sati, where a wife was burned with her dead husband, was considered right and proper. Good. British authorities disagreed. Egyptian emperors were buried with their slaves and servants. Evil? Or was it, if these people went willingly because they were serving their emperor and gods?

A week later, the party finally arrived on the Via Claudia Augusta at Mediolanum, the capital of the Western Empire, where they were met by a legion of men dispatched to bring Marcellus to the empress regent. In the city, they were presented an ovation — a parade through the city to the palace, where the characters were presented accolades for the defense of Castra Stativa against the Quadi. Marcellus received the appellation “Quadius” for his victory and with Carrus were presented coronae and philerae (medals) for their actions (as well as finally paid for their three months of service…) The rest were given Crowns of the Preserver, a high award for those civilians who have saved a soldier’s life. Augustinian and Icio were also given the title pius felix.

Afterward, they retired to a villa that was set aside for them. There were already some issues with men wanting to buy Carona as a slave, but more worrying was Bishop Ambrose’s reaction to her — a demonic creature, and one that is supposedly fornicating with one of their number! That is bestiality, as best! Icio knows she is good, but the Church has decided that she is an unclean thing. Is he good for trying to defend her, or evil for being influenced by her?

Ambrose, nevertheless, impressed Augustinian with his rhetoric and intellect, and vice-versa (as was the case in the real world), leading our cleric to start dallying with Christianity.

That evening, a gala for the heroes (minus Carona who — it was suggested — should stay at home) led to Marcellus making one hell of an impression thanks to boosts from the cleric (eagle splendor) and band (bardic inspiration). Marcellus not only awe Empress Justina with his martial prowess and his story of the Shadow and Satan (she’s seeing it as an End of Days scenario), but he was able to charm the pants off her…literally. The empress is worried about the Nicene influence in Mediolanum; she and her family are Arian Christians and she is worried that Ambrose’s push to eliminate their sect may lead to instability. Since he is also friendly with Gratian, the junior emperor, she is hoping he can be a bridge between her and her stepson, for the good of the empire. Meanwhile, she has authorized a legion for him to take to Greece to meet this extraordinary threat (Satan.)

While Marcellus and Calvinus were getting familiar with their respective ladies in the palace, Icio and Augustinian escorted a very drunk Carrus home to walk in on a couple of masked men trying to kill Carona. That seemed like a good place to end for the night.

It was a good character night. Their beliefs and basic purposes were challenged — something that I think pushed character exploration and growth in ways that beating the crap out of monsters does not. Carrus was distinctly torn between his desire to kill the troll, or go along with the diplomatic solution that Icio and Augustinian pursued. Icio has been reeling from meeting Satan, and having that foe ask some very good questions about the nature of gods, angels, and his own people, the barukhim; he then followed it up by showing mercy (and having it work), and later finding himself in between his bishop and his friendship and experience with the satyr, Carona. Marcellus knows getting involved with the empress and her causes is dangerous…but he is also a creature of duty and order, and being part of an attempt to save the empire cuts straight through his better judgment. Calvinus is having trouble with the voice in his head — a telepathic link to the succubus that seduced him a few sessions back — that is trying to turn him slowly against his fellows.

The ethical and moral conundrums are making for a truly enjoyable game where the players are having to really figure out what their characters want, believe, and know. I’m pretty pleased to see that my instinct to move away from hack-and-slash and dungeon crawls was a good one.