So my “forever GM” streak has been interrupted!
One of my players “M” has decided she wants to take a turn at the GM wheel. She was playing “Atli” in our ill-fated turn with Forbidden Lands, and enjoyed the whole building fiction thing… Now she wants to give it a try in a game where the “GM duties” are shared around a little.
There are a bunch of neat handouts that were printed – roles, characters, and even one for the GM! These list out the specific rules needed for each bit. A difference of this game to the others we’ve played is that we don’t always play the same character. We start out with Specialists, but can sometimes play Rookies, Soldiers, or even other Specialists. We also get special legion roles – but more of that when it comes up. This is a war story. The Legion just lost a major battle against undead forces of the Cinder King and his Broken (supernatural evil beings). We’re playing the survivors of the battle. The only saving grace is that we have a Chosen with us – a person chosen and blessed by a god to act as their avatar.
We had 3 choices for a Chosen, and the choice sets the tone for the game. We picked “Zora the Ancient”. She’s an avatar of the Living God of the Zemyati (russian/norse expys). Unlike most chosen, she’s stayed alive for centuries – she ended the Godswar, broke the Dar uprising and many other things. Now, she’s appeared in the aftermath of the battle to rally the decimated Legion. This is going to be a story of heroic deeds and glorious sacrifice!
Zora comes with a starting mission: (this is a little long.. a recounting from my character PoV, mostly. Jump to the end for my thoughts on the system)
We thought we were winning. Black Shot had changed the war. Local troops with black shot were holding the undead in position. The Legion had been called in to reinforce the city of Karlsburg and lead the counterattack to drive back the Cinder King. But then it all went wrong. The fields of Ettenmark are now littered with the bodies of Legionnaires and Aldermark soldiers. Pillars of smoke rise from the burning city.
But Zora the Ancient has reappeared. She appears over trenches, or crashing through burning ceilings to rescue soldiers. Now we’re gathered on the edge of the Ettenmark Fields: a cold, shocked scattering of soldiers who don’t know what happens next. Oh how we’ve fallen. We arrived over a thousand strong, under fluttering banners marked with our honours. Now I can see only two score huddled in the mud.
But Zora has a purpose. Or a Purpose. She will stop the advance of the undead at Skydagger Keep which guards the only pass into the Eastern Lands. For that she needs an army. She needs the Legion. But we’re all that remains, and even worse the Commander is missing! Zora saw him taken into a castle to the south, and says that a special interrogator is being dispatched to wrest the secrets of the Legion from our brave commander.
Zora will lead an assault on the main gates of the castle. A diversion. A few of us will sneak in via the catacombs to rescue the Commander while the Undead are distracted. We can’t let the undead learn the Legion’s secrets!
Now we get to make characters! This is a “assault mission”, which means that we have 2 specialists and a squad. I let the girls pick first. “P” definitely has a type. She’s was Elin, and now she’s picked a Panyar (beastmen?) Scout Specialist – Blue Dancer. Since we’re on assault we need to have a Heavy/Medic/Sniper, so “R” picked a Zemyati Heavy – Valentina Zayovna. I was left with a Rookie – Kaviya Dewa 🙂
Zora said there would be a cave. A wretched trickle of water wound out of the slit in the cliff. Supposedly it led to the castle above. Valentina looked suitably gruff in her plate. She’d left behind much of the heavy reinforcement for the sake of speed, but I don’t think I would be able to carry even the breastplate! Val and the scout Blue Dancer whispered at the mouth of the cave, trying to hide their worry from us grunts. But I could tell from their body language that they felt lost.
Something about this tickled my memory. An Aldermani fortress on the edge of Dar territory. A cliff and catacombs. It was the redoubt of Zora when she put down the Dar rebellion! The rebel leaders had been imprisoned and later buried here. I’d researched this and given a lecture about it in Karlsburg University.
The one that was now a pile of burnt wood.
I remembered the diagram I’d spent weeks putting together. I sketched a rough version in the dirt. The workers had enlarged the water-made fissure for faster access when excavating the catacombs. We should be able to get right up under the castle’s chapel! Both specialists looked impressed. Blue Dancer looked like she was memorising my diagram. She beckoned us to follow.
We shuffled through the dark, dank corridors. We would have overlooked the fissure if Val hadn’t literally stumbled into it. It was a steep chute that the water trickled down. At the bottom was a pile of rotten rope and wood. There used to be a ladder here. Bluey started to unpack her climbing kit, mumbling about weights and running water. Val was impatient. She grabbed a rope and slung it over her shoulder, then started to drag herself up the chute, water trickling over her armor!
A while after she disappeared up into the darkness, a rope dropped down in front of us. It twitched and danced, Val was calling us. Time to climb.
Bluey was constantly telling us to make less noise, making us stop as something shuffled past in the darkness. I don’t know how long we were in those tunnels, but it was too long!
The floor grating was rusted, but Val just barged it open. The chapel was thankfully empty, but sounds leaked in from outside. Bluey peeked out the main doors. We were in the castle courtyard. She could see Zora and the undead battling it out! She called to the squad and had them spread out and search the chapel for another way out. Meanwhile, Valentina pulled me close and pointed my nose out the doorway. “Well professor? Where should we go?)
I tried to ignore the roars and screams as burned-undead mobbed Zora and the Legionnaires. The Keep stood tall. The entrance faced the courtyard full of armed undead. A lady in torn clothing stood at the top of the stairs looking over the undead.
“The commander is probably in the main keep. Probably the dungeons with lots of tools for persuasion. But we’re going to have to cross the courtyard to get there. And deal with her” I pointed at the woman. She looked like a maid or other servant. But happy to watch the undead?
Val looked uneasy.
Bluey returned “News is good. We found a back door. It goes underground. Leads that away” She pointed in the direction of the Keep.
Val gently shut the door. “Courtyard is killing zone. No time for that. Lead the way Bluey”
The back room was some kind of changing room for the priest. Robes, Relics, and Books. I wanted to stop and look, but Val dragged me away. The Commander was waiting for us, somewhere. The corridor ended in a wine cellar. Barrels and bottles all around. Val glanced around the room. “Looks like private stash of chaplain. See, door is bolted shut.”
We headed for the door, but found the metal bar had rusted shut. We couldn’t open the door.
Everyone looked worried, except for Val. She unslung a leader roll from her back and laid it across the floor. It was full of tools. Crowbar, spikes, drills, and some cushioned vials. “Acids” she said. “Help us get through.”
Val carefully placed drops of acid.. After the metal started to bubble she tried pulling at the metal bar. Nothing. More acid and time. Nothing. Val began to look very angry. Bluey looked nervous and quietly gathered the troops. “Lets make a battering ram. Grab some heavy furniture“
The door cracked open and fell to the floor with a crash, the hinges torn from the wall. The squad eagerly leapt over the wooden ruin and pointed their muskets alone the corridor.
“That’ brings attention” Val said.
“Someone will come.”
Bluey considered a moment before nodding sadly.
“This tells story of intruder. We should stop this story.”
Bluey grinned. She crept back into the cellar, unwrapping a bundle of black-arrows.
I looked at the pair of veterans readying their weapons. “Right. We’ve got to get ready for company. Back in the cellar and fix bayonets!” Val nodded in agreement and ushered the troops back.
Just as the squad was getting into position, I heard a low growl. Glancing to my left I saw one of the undead. Black-burnt skin, oozing red cracks, clawed and hunched. It stared at me with bloodshot eyes, glanced back along the corridor. I saw it shift its weight, preparing to run away. Probably to call reinforcements. I swung my musket up and fired. The lead ball crashed through its skull. The Undead shook, sparks arcing from the wound, before collapsing on the ground. Bluey was at my side in a heartbeat. “Quick, help me drag it into the cellar”.
We dragged the stinking thing and threw it into the cellar, then raised the door until it rested in its frame once again.. I wiped my hands on the wall, leaving a black, greasy residue which smelt something like overcooked pork. Val nodded and asked “Which way to the dungeons?”
We rushed along the corridors, barely pausing until I spotted the stairs down to the dungeons. Val leapt past my pointing finger, almost falling down the stairs, followed by the rest of us. The dungeon was simply lit by torches which showed us a horrific scene. The Commander was struggling against manacles in a chair. Leaning over his was a red-robed thing. Flanking the blood stained chair were a pair of armoured soldiers. All four looked up at us. The soldiers brandished blackened swords at us and roared – a fiery glow coming from their throats. The Red Robe scowled and turned back to the commander, a scalpel raised for a killing blow.
Blue leapt from the staircase, releasing a black-arrow as she fell. It pierced the red hood where its face would be. The robe and knife fell to the floor while the pair of burnt-guards attacked.
Valentina struck like an avenging angel. Her sword flashed out and embers flew from the pair of guards. The three were locked in a deadly dance, blades swinging and armour ringing. As she pushed back a Cinder-Blade she shouted over her shoulders “Get Boss! Run!”
Bluey and I franticly undid the bindings and pulled the commander up the stairs, behind us Val and the squad fought valiantly against the Cinder guards – battering them and holding them in the corner, reduced to growls as we left. The corridors looked endless as struggled to run with the added weight of the Commander. His right arm had been flayed, blood dribbled down my side from the arm draped over my back.
Meanwhile in the dungeon, The cinder-guards were once more contained and frustrated by the blade-work and armour of Val. But her steps were slowing, and the blade becoming heavier with each block. She panted at the other troops “Run. The commander needs you.”
For a few moments, Val was able to hold the pair of Cinder guards – which allowed the squad to run up the stairs and after the commander. “Now only us.” The blades crashed into her sides. Straps tore under the punishment. The two cinder-guards didn’t tire.
Val was on her knees, but in a final burst she leapt forward and pierced the helm of one of the cinder-guards. Her sword driving it down and pinning it to the wall. “Just die” she whispered as she twisted the blade back and forth until it’s head fell off. She collapsed to one knee in exhaustion and watched the head clatter across the floor to be stopped by the foot of the other guard. She looked up to it’s burnt face and raised glaive. “Do your worst”
Bluey and I had made it to the chute and the squad had joined us relating the sacrifice of Val. We knew the undead would be searching for us now. “The fall will break any undead. Go down the rope now!”
She held the rope as I descended. We all heard the yowls of undead echoing above us. Bluey looked down the dark corridor towards the sound, then back down at the faces of the rookies and commander down in the dim torchlight. She untied the rope from her waist and let it fall. “Don’t fail”
This was EPIC! The heavy really was a wall protecting the squad, while the scout always seemed to find a new way to get places. I also loved the flashback mechanic to build up some backstory for my rookie (who the others took to calling “Professor”)
It really does feel like an evolution of the PbtA mechanics – using dice pools and position/effect to make the game feel more gritty. I love the stress as HP mechanic, but that it can also be used for other things than just “being hit”. What I also love is the “taken out by stress” isn’t necessarily death. Val and Bluey may just come back with trauma. M did the fade-to-black to suggest possible death, but left open other possibilities.
We were unsure if Val or Blue would survive.. We chatted a bit and gave odds.. 6+ for val, 4+ for Bluey… 2, and 5. Blue Dancer made it back. Somehow.
We didn’t even get to the Roles (Commander, Marshal, Quartermaster, Lorekeeper, Spymaster). But even as a bog-standard RPG, this system is a lot of fun and makes for some very cinematic feeling gameplay. I thinkg though in future games we need to learn to just “go with it” for some of the complications. The mechanic to resist is great! You get to say to the GM “no that didn’t happen” but your character takes stress. It is literally “plot armour”. But both our specialists were “taken out” by stress we used it so much. But neither one had any damage, and we drove the game in the direction we wanted. Next time we might take some harm and complications and hopefully save our characters…
Next session we will get a hold of the Role playbooks, and hopefully dive into some more Legion mechanics 🙂