Our Dungeons & Dragons game had it’s big finale (for now) with the characters at the River Styx, a waterfall dropping into a strangely — one might say “deathly” — still pond. They had just defeated a devil intent on stopping them from getting this far, and only a half mile away, over a hill, a massive battle between the forces of good and evil was unfolding on the beach, where the Archangels Michael and Gabriel were leading their meagre number of angels against a hellish horde of hundreds. (Oooo! nice alliteration!)

They were confronted by the four elemental “Guardians of the Shadow” — the veil separating the various planes of existence: water from the pool, fire from a forest fire that had been set during their fight with the devil, an air elemental they could barely see, and an earth elemental that had plucked himself out of the cliff face. Things were looking grim, as the players had blown a fair bit of their spells, command dice (Marcellus was out of arrows for the Bow of Indignance), and ki points…then Anathema dropped her hood and showed herself to the creatures, which promptly stopped their advance. But why..?

“I live here,” she told them. The pressure was not off, however, for the real foe had arrived — Satan and a few other devils dropped toward the pool and were promptly attacked by the guardians and the party. The air elemental was quickly dissipated by Satan, using weather control. The other devils were attacked by the fire elements, but they were immune to that; the water elemental grabbed one and pulled it under the pond. The rest of the team got involved and the fight was fierce, with Satan and his sidekick knocking the characters around. Icio the monk was several times knocked into negative territory — the first time I had assumed him dead at -10HP, but the 5th edition rules apparently make death even more remote. He would got healed to a few points in the positive and then knocked back down to -11, healed again to 3HP. Carrus went head to head with the sidekick devil and got banged up pretty badly, but with Marcellus’ aid they finally whooped the creature. At that point, in response for the last fight where the devil they’d run off had chopped the horns off of his helmet, he gouged the horns off of the devil as replacements.

While all of this violence was ensuing, Augustinian was desperately trying to finish the banishment spell for Satan — one that, if he was reading his Enochian right, would lock Satan in Tartarus. He was distracted twice, having to restart the spell, and using a syncretic version that called on Jesus and several Roman gods to do the deed. Calvinus the Bard, sensing they weren’t winning the fight, started his own song — the song to destroy the Shadow and open the paths to other planes.

Toward the end, it was apparent that Satan was too much for them. Icio was desperately calling for God’s intercession…but there was nothing. Michael and the other angels were fighting, or dead, on the other side of the ridge. Then his prayer was answered…but not by whom he expected. Through the waterfall strode a man, 20 foot tall if a foot, older but with that wiry-looking musculature. Black armor shot with red highlights. A strange head-hugging helmet that hid most of his features, save the Fu Manchu beard and the bright blue-gray eyes.

Pluto had arrived to defend his kingdom. The characters and the god fought Satan for a few more rounds before Calvinus and Augustinian finished their spells at the same time. As they were well outside of their level of mastery, they both rolled — Wisdom for the cleric, Charisma for the bard. They both rolled 23. Good enough for the spells to happen, but not good enough for their not to be unseen consequences. Satan seemed to smear through the air, right through the waterfall, crying out the whole way. Then everything disappeared in a blaze of multicolored light!

From the beach where the battle had been going against the angels and Christians, they saw the bubble of bright light explode up from over the ridge. Then devils started dropping as lightning blew them apart. Earthquakes started to break the earth and the sea swallowed hundreds of the Goths and nephalhim (tiefling) that were fighting with the demons. Out of the sky, riding a lightning bolt came a huge giant of a man, strong, middle-aged, and armored for battle. With him, a red-haired goddess in shining armor, her shield and spear at the ready. A man similar looking to the first rode horses made from of sea-foam out of the ocean. Arrows rained down from the sky as a man and woman, similar in look rode in on a chariot pulled by fiery horses.

The demons and their army broke and ran for it, leaving the Old Gods triumphant, and a few of the angels alive to take to the skies, and ultimately, Heaven which they had been denied by the Shadow for so long…

We ended there for the night, not knowing if the characters were alive or dead, or what was in store for this version of the 4th Century. Considering I didn’t really have a plan beyond a more gritty and historically based game, this wound up going fairly well: We had a nice combination of imperial politics, battle scenes, bad guys, religious debates, and a denouement that actually went the way I kind of wanted it to.

Afterward, I pitched the idea of the new “volume” in the Hollow Earth Expedition game and was pleased when they seemed amenable. So next week, if all goes well, we may have a new ’30s pulp game to play for a while!

Our D&D game has been having a series of fits and starts as several of the players are away, seemingly every week, and that has been slowing the denouement of the current campaign. The players had found themselves engaged with one of the major henchmen and personal foil for Icio the Monk. Said foil was dispatched with aplomb, as a villain you’ve built up over a while always seems to be in role playing games. (After 30+ years, I’ve realized players usually will chew up your big finale, but it’s the little milk run you threw in on a night you didn’t have much that normally get characters killed.)

We opened with Calvinus the bard, still staunchly a Roman pantheist, getting a dreamtime visit from Kore, the goddess of the Underworld. After a millennium of being stuck with her husband, she is ready to escape. More, she thinks the Shadow — the veil that separates the various planes of existence — should come down. It’s not just that Satan’s plan for the monsters in Tartarus is going to lead to inevitable destruction on Earth, but that Pluto sees the use of the same army to stop Satan and preserve his rule in Hades (and keep the other gods at bay) is likely to have the very same result. She gives Calvinus an offer he’s unlikely to refuse — save the world from the Christian anti-Christ, release the gods back into the world, and possibly stop the spread of Christianity, which Calvinus is against for personal reasons. As a cherry on top: she will give him the most beautiful woman in the world…

Icio meets with the angel Michael, who it appears increasingly likely is his father despite God’s injunctions against angels having relations with women. (Yes, it’s in the Bible…) He tries to find out ther truth, but Michael tells him to focus on the task — finishing God’s enemies at the River Styx. Preserve the veil, and with the army of faithful that will be waiting for him, and Michael’s bring a choir of angels, they can defeat Satan. Just one thing…they need a human to cast the banishment. (He doesn’t explain why.) They need Augustinian to believe in Christ and to use his power to rid them of Satan and his minions.

They arrive in the Peloponnesus under an expanding storm cloud. Lightning and rain are lashing the area, and in the east, where Corinthus is, there’s a strange flickering light…is the city on fire? On the beach, they find a crowd of thousands of people, recently fled from Corinthus before Satan’s hordes. They are waiting for Icio, the Warrior of God! Hundreds of demonic things, a thousand Goths and nephalhim [tiefling]) invaded the city and are coming this way. They are only a two hour hike/climb from the beach to the River Styx, which they can see tumbling down the sheer cliff of Mount Aronia. Marcellus and Carrus prepare their men, and organize the faithful into units and formations, even the women and children. Augustinian and Icio, along with Calvinus debate what they should do: Icio wants to stay with these people and fight, but Augustinian thinks they can do more by keeping their eye on the prize. Stop Satan, save the world.

The characters eventually light out of the camp under a spell of invisibility cast by Anathema when Michael arrives with his angels to meet the overwhelming force of hellish creatures advancing on their position, and they race to get to the river. They are spotted by one of Satan’s scouts (a horned devil from the Monster Manual) which led to the main conflict for the night. The creature proved to be a challenge to the characters. Several of them got fried by the devil’s hurl fire, including Augustinian, who was badly injured. Spells had little effect, and Marcellus was having trouble getting hits with the Bow of Indigence. (Crappy rolls were translated into the bow fighting Marcellus a bit because he was not succumbing to its corrupting influence.) There was a great moment where Carrus the dwarf, took a running sprint up Amathema’s back to get a good jump at the devil, where he got a crit on the creature’s junk.

The use of fire spells led to the forest being on fire around them, and eventually — badly mauled — the devil flew off to warn it’s master, rather than get killed. They hired the last bit with the forest behind them burning and arrived at where the river dropped into a placid pool. The waterfall made almost no noise, and there was no sound of birds or creatures, just the trumpet blasts of Gabriel in the distance — each blast shattering devils in mid-air. Fireballs, lighting, very very frightening…only a mile or so away, thousands are dying in an apocalyptic battle, but at the pool, all is quiet but hardly serene. The storm overhead is not raining here. The wind isn’t blowing. Anathema announces they’ve arrived…

At that moment, the water ripples and a gigantic thing, make seemingly of water rises out of the pool. A section of the cliff face breaks loose, a warrior of stone. The forest conflagration behind them whips out a swirling figure of fire. And a wind begins to stir…

The Kidemones tis Skias — the Guardians of the Shadow — have arrived…

It’s been a ridiculously busy couple of weeks here: I’m teaching at a local college, taking classes for my teaching licensure (secondary), and have been wrestling with the rather intransigent The Queen of the Orient — which steadfastly refused all efforts to excise typos and other issues from it, and is now actively fighting my efforts to get the damned thing into print. I also had an old friend visit from Pennsylvania, extra kid duty, and….you get the picture.

Our game saw a bunch of the players skipping for various reasons, but we still played — with said old friend stepping in for the usual player of Carrus the Dwarf and doing an excellent job in the process for one session.

The first of the two sessions saw their expedition to the River Styx land for victuals and water in Dorius, a small coastal town against sharp mountains in Dalmatia. The weather had been crap for the entire trip, and their three triremes had been attacked by dozens of merrow, but successfully beaten back. In town, they were met by the mayor and populous who were happy to see them and directed them to the leader of a group of outsiders that attacked a few days ago — they call themselves Greuthung (a tribe of Goths) and their leader has set up in the town hall, while his army was lurking in the mountains beyond town.

After some haphazard reconnoitering and terrible stealth tests, they were met by a servant in the hall who told them the warlord awaited them. When they went in, they were faced with a combination of human and hobgoblin Goths who had been expecting them. At that time, they noted there were others on the balcony that ran around the outside of the central hall — Icio noted one was Aiton, the nephalim that had killed his mentor Haman, and who has been looking for the Shadow, the veil that separates the various planes of existence for Satan. He also had with him another of his kind, a sorcerer.

The fight was joined and the group showed that it’s finding its groove — now at 5th level, they have jumped substantially in power, and the bard and wizards frequently use their spells and abilities to protect themselves, and buff the bricks — Marcellus the centurion, Carrus the dwarf, and Icio the monk — to heroic levels while disadvantaging the villains. The fight between Icio and Aiton was very obviously one-sided, despite my having built the guy to be an equal.

One thing we saw this session was that the party is about as big as you want to get. There are five player characters and two main NPCs, and they were facing a bunch of mooks that they were generally going to take out in one or two blows. They split their efforts well, keeping the minions from interfering with handling the big bads, but it was time-consuming. Two of the players didn’t bother to hide they were bored; one was taking texts, the other playing a mobile game. Later, the texter informed me that the fight scenes tend to run long.

It’s a good point. The fight scenes have gotten longer, but not so much as a factor of the number of characters, as the number of actions the characters get. It is one of the new issues that Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has presented. The PCs get more bad ass, and can do more in a round…but it also means the time it takes to get through five players is commensurately longer.

The next session was the game-player out for the night, as well as a last minute (like, we’re already playing) cancelation by another, and a late arrival by a third. One of those weeks. This time, we picked up with the group sorting themselves out after the fight. A few of the characters had been tashed up a bit, but magic and hit dice… They hear a strange chanting from the townspeople outside, led by the mayor and their priest. The language is Enochian, Anathema informed them — the language of the angels — but a corrupted version demons and devils use. They were summoning something.

The sight of the upside-down cross and this news set the monk into action before the others could react. He fired up his wings and struck at the priest, who seemed to welcome the assault. With a flurry of blows, he put the priest down for good…the final element in the spell. Lightning and thunder peeled, and Calvinus dropped a hypnotic bubble on the group of townsfolk. they were close enough together he was able to stupify and render them harmless. But above them, a winged, horned monstrosity, a barbed devil, dropped to meet them. It had its sights set on Icio, who had murdered his favorite, Aiton.

This fight moved fast and the characters were presented with a good villain that their fancy weapons were no good against. The devil mentioned to Carrus after an attack that the Fury he had taken it from would want it back… The characters were eventually able to take the creature down and the session ended a bit early than usual.

The two sessions exposed some of the issues that trying to run a less “high” fantasy game in 5th Edition. Much of the conceit of D&D is a small(ish) party of heroes involved in sequences of fights in a sandbox — a dungeon, castle, etc. This naturally focuses the game on fights and tactical choices, and as the characters progress, it is expected that they will encounter larger, meaner critters. This campaign has featured army-scale engagements where the players were necessary and important elements of the fight…but the success or failure of their battles could have been undone by the masses of NPCs around them. The stakes have been accelerating to keep pace with their abilities and the use of magic to “get out of death”, but are starting to present them with antagonists beyond their level, and which have necessitated the occasional deus ex machina to keep them alive.

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.

This is a hard one. We had a long running AD&D game in high school that plateaued when the characters fought our equivalent of Satan/Sauron/BigBadGuy™… I remember closing the books and thinking “Well…not going to top that” and adhering to the axiom it’s better to go out at the top of your game, I never played D&D or a fantasy setting again, until I played in a short-lived Shadowrun game (and I was in that more for the lone female player…)

I’ve looked over a bunch of the rules sets — from Numenera (which looks pretty, but the system didn’t thrill me), to The One Ring (which seemed to do Tolkein well, but I have OCD players that would really get into studying up on the world…I don’t have the time or will to slog through Tolkein again.) There’s the Victorian fantasy stylings of Victoriana — which I know well from writing for it, and is essentially Shadowrun mixed with Space: 1889 — to Castle Falkenstein, which I’ve used for playing Space: 1889 for a while, and there’s modern fantasy in the shape of Shadowrun. 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons has attracted my interest, more as a tool for recruiting gamers, more than wanting to play it.

I just find the idea of the traditional elves/dwarves/orc/and dragons games boring. Blue Rose looks interesting, but not enough for me to plunk down cash, sight unseen.

Right now, I think I’ll stick to my sci-fi and pulp settings.