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 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.

I think that’s what I’m calling this volume of Dungeons & Dragons adventures: The Road to Heroism. Why? Because the Via Graiae features prominently in the campaign, thus far. They are in what is supposed to be deep inside Roman territory, 50 miles or so from the border, and all their adventures have been along the road.

This particular episode for the night was The Goblin Town. Our heroes had managed to convince the prefect of Vigiles in Ariolica to take a force and root out the nearby Vandal threat. With 80 men, 2 ballistas, and the party, they left the Via Graiae and headed into the snowy forests of the Jura Mountains. Along the way, it occurred to Quintus Marcellius — our former legionnaire, that they could use more aid, and that Jurahold, the dwarven village Carrus the Ranger is from, was nearby.

They arrived in a small valley where Juraborg, the dwarven town, is situated. Jurahold is carved into the mountain face above the picturesque village, and is a refuge against attack and the harshness of winter. On approach, the guard are shocked to see Carrus, but not their leader Smaigo the Zwergifuhr (who was killed prior to the introduction of Carrus, Icio the Monk, and Calvinus the bard in media res) a few weeks ago.

The force is invited into the hold and in the great hall, Lady Fega — Smaigo’s wife and ostensibly the new ruler of the tribe — does not handle the news of her beloved’s death well. The character’s stories are consistent, but biffed charisma roles meant that they were not given the warmest welcome at the news, but things did not go terribly. Carrus, however, was not content to be the guy that lost his tribe’s leader, and convinced an equal force of Jurazwergi to join them in the attack on the Vandal village nearby. (Benefits of a crit 20…) They stayed the night in the dwarven hold, Calvinus romanced a pair of dwarven twins while he was playing for the entertainment of all, and in the morning, they were off to find the Vandals.

As they were nearing the village, they could hear wolves baying — the goblins were not going to be surprised. Carrus and a few of his dwarves slipped forward to reconnoiter the location and confirmed an old Roman village that had been abandoned ages ago was inhabited and being repaired by the goblins. They got an estimate of the numbers — maybe 500, with 200-250 of that being children, and 100-150 women. That left about 100 warriors to worry about. They also spotted an old dwarven hold in the rockface of the hillside near the town that the goblins were operating out of. While watching the town, they saw a force of 50 Vandals leave to intercept the Roman advance and retreated to warn the others.

The decision was made to have a small force of the dwarves under the party raid the subterranean hold from the back door, hoping to find and free the prisoners, while the main force under Abrecan, the prefect, met the Vandals…maybe they were looking to talk? Either way, the main force has superior numbers and training; the smaller force would most likely only encounter a similar number in the hold. (The cleric stayed with the main force, as the player was out for the night.)

After slipping into the hold from the massive doors (we established that the dwarves always seem to overbuild…they’re on average 4’8″, but all their ceilings are 18-20 feet high; their door 12 feet tall! They walked straight into a guard and the monk dispatched him with a fantastic success on his attack. The next passage had three Vandals, and a cage full of the children taken from Timo’s Ford, the village from the first adventure. They dispatched the baddies and freed the kids, then pressed in, encountering 3-4 goblins per chamber.

The bard kept taunting the Vandals with “vicious mockery” — I’d never considered the hit points were as much a mental and physical structure; and this cantrip did hit points of damage. This led, in one of the fights, to me using that notion against Carrus. In one of the chambers, there were cages of prisoners under them, with a walkway running through the room. He had fouled an acrobat roll and slipped, nutting himself on the bars and temporarily at the mercy of one of the Vandals, who was able to strike at him. For the first few adventures, the characters have been first and second level, but the sheer numbers they’ve faced has allowed the to jump to 3rd level by this week’s game; a hit from a goblin a few sessions ago would have killed the character, but in this case only did about 40% in damage…I decided that was mostly from mental trauma: the swipe of the goblin’s scimitar lopped off one of Carrus’ beautiful twins braids of red beard! There was no damage, but the indignity of having his beard shorn off in combat was a distraction for the fight.

Eventually, they reached the main chamber where most of the survivors of Timo’s Ford were being shackled for the day’s work rebuilding the town. A half dozen or more Vandals were in the cavern, and before a fight could commence, Icio — the aasimar monk — lit himself up with the radiant soul ability: suddenly, this scrawny monk burst forth with inner light, glowing wings erupting from his back, and spouting off about the judgment of God and repenting their ways.

The goblins ran for their lives.

The towns folk were so awed by him, they started to ask about this god he spoke of while they were being released.

With the townsfolk released, they now had to either escape through the back door, or hold position in the defensible caverns of the hold and wait for their friends to arrive. They chose the latter. The Vandals made a perfunctory attempt to reconnoiter the hold, but a well placed pilum (javelin) by Marcellius drove them off. Weended the night with the Vandals rolling olive-oil covered burning barrels into the cavern to confuse and harass the party and their charges… (Yay! A cliffhanger ending!)

So, some of the things I/we took away from this: 1) hit points are both physical and mental damage…it is possible to describe a hit in D&D that doesn’t have serious effect as a distraction, or a momentary bit of fear or lack of surety; it doesn’t have to be an actual physical hit. 2) Fighters are much more bad ass in 5th edition at lower levels. 3) Likewise, low-level spells — even cantrips — are have more punch in 5e. Magic users are actually formidable. 4) The features and other customizable bits are fun, but can get a bit tricky to manage. 5) Having a rules lawyer when you’re still new to the system can be handy and annoying at the same time. (One of the guys has been running 5e for a while, now.)

We’ve been steadily building out this alternate-Roman setting, and one thing that’s been changing subtly is our initial take on Christianity, as a simple cult of Judaism, has morphed into an almost Alan Christianity: where 1) Jesus was an assimar, as was John the Baptist; 2) the rest of the story is pretty much the same; 3) Jesus is considered divine or divinely inspired, but not God, per se. 4) The cult of Jesus is still growing in strength and popularity, but is behind where it was in the real world. Even so, Christianity was still building, post Emperor Constantine, so we’re not as off the map as we were initially going to be. 5) Since I’ve established the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons and creatures exist, Christianity is locked in a fight with the other religions for believers not just in temples; these gods are trying to keep their membership rolls up. This may tie into the monk’s antagonist — a nephilim (or cursed), what they call tieflings in the Levant — and what his mission for Lucifer might be.

So for fairly simple outings — defending a caravan and a town, and then rescuing the village population — the characters get to build their game world reputations, but we are steadily building out and refining the greater world, even while remaining in an area of play that is only 50 or so square miles.

 

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.