Last Saturday, I GMed a rather unusual sort of Ascension Epoch game, one that doesn’t (for the most part) involve superheroes and is set in the heretofore unexplored time period of Ice Age North America. Here’s the synopsis I gave the players:
Adventurers exploring, taming, and colonizing Ascension Epoch North America, approximately 30,000 years ago. Glaciers cover much of the northern part of the continent and the frozen water has reduced sea levels substantially, extending the coastlines for scores or even hundreds of miles into the Atlantic and Caribbean.
Only the first trickle of proto-Indians have crossed Beringia, and yet other parts of the continent are inhabited. It is a century or so after the first landfall by Arqi (Atlantean) explorers and conquerors. The Scarlet Empire has proclaimed all of North and South America as its own, but not even the mighty Nephilim of Arqualan know the full extent of the landmasses, and almost none of it is settled. They must also contend with the decadent, but still deadly indigenes, including the sorcerous, sub-human Shonokins; the enigmatic, subterranean empire of K’n-Yan; the towering, cynocephalic Volkori; savage man-eating bands of nomad Nephilim giants; the degraded remnants of ancient Lomar, long lost beneath the northern snows; and relict pockets of shapeshifting Serpent Men. They must also contend with the giant, shaggy-haired Yaktavian colonists that come from the Pacific, reshaping nature with their soundless Bells; primitive, but teeming, colonies of Deep Ones that lurk in the sea shallows, commanding the titanic submarine beasts that once threatened Arqualan itself; and rival Atlantean conquerors and renegades expelled from the crowded home islands.
The continent is wild and home to many large and dangerous beasts, like Mammoths, Mastodons, Dire Wolves, Cave Bears, Cave Lions, Sabre-toothed Cats, and the rest of the Pleistoscene megafauna. It is also home to more fantastic creatures unknown and unbelieved by modern men, beasts mutated by nameless and eldritch powers, or the products of sorcerer-science worked by proscribed Teratologists and moon-worshipping Lunomancers. Creatures like Owlbears, Bulettes, Sphinxes, Harpies, Giant Ants, and Manticores. Individually, these teratormorphs are rare (or sometimes, unique) but are bound to be encountered sooner or later.
The land is known to the Arqi by the name the giants have given it: Tulgan-No-Rummbec, the Home of Dreadful Death. Or, shortened in the Arqi pronunciation, Norumbec, the hidden linguistic origin of the lost land of Norumbega listed on early European maps of the Americas. Arqi settlement has proceeded in fits and starts over the last 150 years, with many recessions caused by wars, disease, or internal trouble in the home islands. Besides the plunder of foreign civilizations, there are treasures and mysteries to be rediscovered in lost or abandoned Atlantean castles, mines, and treasure hordes.Most of the colonization, including all the large cities, is along the Gulf and southern Atlantic coast, on land that is now (in 2020) submerged. The Arqi have not yet reached the source of the Mississippi-Missouri, and have only scattered knowledge of the southern Pacific coast. The Rockies are the mostly uncontested domain of the Cynocephali and the Giants, the southern Appalachians and Ozarks in thrall to the Shonokins, and the desert plains between the two form the militarized frontier with K’n-Yan. Pirate bands of rebellious Arqi and a mongrel assortment of their subject peoples raid from hideouts in the jungled southern coasts and the unexplored depths of rivers.
This was a sandbox campaign I had been whipping up over the last several weeks according to the guidelines proposed by Alexander Macris in Arbiter of Worlds. I created my own hex map with about 30 points of interest and a bunch of tables with dynamic encounters and an assortment of NPCs. I wanted to use Sword of Cepheus (a fantasy version of Traveler, basically) because I really dug the character generation and the possibility of having starting characters who were all over the board in terms of experience and skill. I had never run the system before and none of the players had ever played in it before — indeed, for two of the players, it was the first time playing RPGs entirely (more on that later), so I was a bit nervous about it, as well as the fact that I hadn’t refereed any fantasy games in a couple of years.
Besides Sword of Cepheus, I harvested a variety of premade dungeons, creatures, and supplemental mechanics from Adventure, Conqueror, King , Lion and Dragon, Palladium Fantasy, Basic Fantasy, and Stonehell Dungeon. If you’re surprised that I leveraged pre-made scenarios and dungeons, don’t be. I bought these books for a reason, and it would be stupid and wasteful not to use them. If I insisted on doing it all myself, at least some of them wouldn’t be as good as the ones I picked, and it would have delayed starting the game for months. Not to mention that, had I created every last adventure location, everything would start to look the same and patterns would emerge that may make it boring and predictable. So there’s no reason not to leverage premade material, even if you have to tweak it.
Thematic and stylistic inspiration was drawn from such different sources as The Pirates of Dark Water, Thundercats, the old Flash Gordon serials, and the novels of Manly Wade Wellman and A. Merrit.
In hindsight, it was perhaps too ambitious. And yet… not bad! Not bad at all.
Character creation took quite a bit longer than I hoped and expected — close to two hours for five players. This wasn’t a problem with the Cepheus character generation so much as it was a limitation of passing around one tablet and PDF to five different people and explaining concepts that veteran players take for granted to a couple of greenhorns. In retrospect, I should have printed out the careers and adventuring gear inventory and given a copy to each player.
The PCs were:
- Rena aka Swiftlet, an Arqi (Atlantean) Rogue of two terms played by Shell Presto. (She’d rolled up several characters previously, but this one was finally in her wheelhouse, and allowed her to play as the Lina Inverse (Slayers) type character she’d always wanted.)
- Horzad, a three-term Shaman of the Lomar-descended Crannogmen with a whopping four Spells
- Subico, an four-term Arqi rogue with a whopping four Enemies
- Reesan, a one-term (failed Survival roll!) Vagabond with almost no skills, but a self-professed ability to talk anybody into anything. We shall see!
- Will, a four-term Arqi Scholar with the rank of doctor and too much money for his own good.
Each player except Horzad had a mount of some kind, either purchased or obtained in chargen. These were mostly used as pack animals to offset encumbrance, particularly Will and Rena who used giant tortoises for this purpose. Reesan had a Camelops (Drom in Arqi) and Subico had the Cepheus default “giant lizard” which I, in a moment of haste, allowed, though it doesn’t really fit with the late Pleistocene theme. I’m not sure how I’ll explain it or what, exactly, it looks like and can do, but that’s OK! I’m rolling with the punches, baby! I eat thunder and crap lightning! That’s why they call me Mr. Incredible, not Mr. So-So or Mr. Mediocre Guy!
The first three were played by veterans while the final two were the rookie players I mentioned before. And it showed. Considering his dearth of skills and complete lack of money, Reesan would have been better off starting over, but his player was eager to get on with the game, which I can also appreciate. Will did just fine in the character creation department, gaining plenty of ranks, the most gold in the party, and lots of esoteric skills.
But as you may have guessed by now, Will’s full name was “Will the Wise.” This name was chosen despite having a large list of lovingly crafted conlang names presented to each character because his player is a 13-year old girl whose interest in playing “D&D,” I would soon learn, comes entirely from watching Stranger Things. I foresaw an early TPK.
In a bold stroke of genius, I started the party in a tavern (“If it’s good enough for Gygax, it’s good enough for you!”). Unknown to one another, they had all arrived in the fortified town of Wardensburg this morning and were now gathered in the only open public house, an establishment called The Hand in Amber. (So far none of the PCs inquired about the name; that’s what you get for world building!) The previous night had been rough, with the tavern (along with the rest of the town) battered and scorched by raiding Crannogmen and Cynocephali. Thus the PCs were forced to sit at the lone table in the lone undamaged corner of the building while the tavern-keeper and his family alternated between feeding them and patching up the place.
All of the PCs except one. Horzad, the barbarian shaman was at the gate, being harassed by three agitated guards, one of whom was riding a Glyptodont (a giant Pleistocene armadillo, hereafter referred to as a “Hammertail”). The guards were alert enough to notice that Horzad was not from around here, and indeed had the strong accent and usual dress of the crannogmen who had just attacked them the night before. While he protested his innocence and peaceful intentions as a traveler looking for rest, the guards became more and more aggressive.
This was my attempt at creating the “unifying event” for the group. I knew it was a risky gambit, but I didn’t know how risky.
Rena took the lead in trying to defuse the situation while not sticking her neck out by claiming an association with the barbarian. Reesan chipped in. And then ‘Will the Wise’ (hereafter dignified by the proper Arqi name — which I have just made up on the spot — Vilifiro, or ‘Wil’ in the lazy brogue of the local yokels) decided to slap the nearest soldier.
The other PCs cringed. Horzad caught Wil by the wrist mid-swing, and Rena was quick to point out the barbarian’s defense of the soldiers. But swords were drawn. Hammertails lashed. Desperate attempts at conciliation followed, along with attempts to distance themselves from Wil. Thankfully for the group and the game, Terrio (the tavern-keeper) intervened, telling the guard (an old friend, I imagine) that the barbarian was a peaceful one and had been here before and then indicating non-verbally that Wil was ‘touched by the gods’ (i.e. crazy).
Why did Terrio stick his neck out for the strangers? They had a tab they hadn’t paid, of course! And he did really think Wil was crazy due to his erratic (i.e. 13-year-old-player-who’s-too-cool-for-RPGs) behavior. People ascribed strange powers and influences to the insane in the ice age just as in more recent times, and people generally want to steer clear of them. Most important of all, it was necessary if I wanted to make the game last more than ten minutes.
Back in the tavern, the group was applauded by a lavishly dressed and accented dandy who introduced himself as Vario. Sensing something important about them, he paid their bills and inquired about what such an unlikely and disparate group was doing travelling together.When they denied any previous connection to one another, Vario was even more intrigued. Surely such an unlikely party were drawn together by fate. Vario was a superstitious type, obsessed with the role of fortune in the lives of men, particularly men named Vario. He was a gambler, and like any good gambler, recognized a shift of fate when he saw it. Thus, he interpreted their arrival as the signal of a great opportunity. For him.
Vario filled them in on the raids over the last week, about how the crannogmen and the dog-headed cynocephali had formed an alliance and brought terror to the frontiers of Carqland. Horzad found this unlikely, as the crannogmen had warred with the dog-headed men as often as anyone else, but he couldn’t argue against the evidence. He resolved to find out how this unlikely change in international relations had come about.
Nevermind that, said Vario. More importantly, Valduro, the local Rai was missing. (A Rai is a sort of Arqi conquistador: basically, fighters from Arqualan, sometimes mercenaries but more often the younger sons of nobles who would not inherit lands and titles in the home islands, set out to conquer lands in North America. If they succeed, they are granted fiefdoms by the Emperor.) Three days ago, he led a force of 30 well armed men to drive crannogmen bandits out of an abandoned island fortress about four miles north of Wardensburg. No one knows exactly what happened, but it obviously wasn’t good, since the huge force of raiders stormed the countryside immediately afterward. Obviously, the raiders’ occupation of the old island fort endangered everyone and couldn’t be allowed to continue, but no one trusted Warden Brontek, the Rai’s lieutenant, to do anything about it. Indeed, Brontek seemed paralyzed with indecision.
“If a man of boldness and fit for rulership would arise, he could set many things to right,” Vario said, obviously referring to himself. Vario was no warrior, but he was wealthy and he had vision. If the party could recapture the fort, or at least search out the enemy’s strength so that he could hire a suitable force of mercenaries to retake it, he would pay for their equipment. And the party was free to keep whatever they found there. Captives and treasures were carried off in large number, so there was the potential for great reward.
The PCs pretended to think about it, but they didn’t come over to my house just to eat hotdogs and hamburgers, so they quickly agreed. Vario gave them a little bit of money to buy provisions and said they should come back to him with a detailed bill for whatever else they required when they met for dinner later on that evening. In the meantime, he was going to the brothel.
The party asked around about the fort, and found out they’d either need to swim through potentially crocodile-infested waters with all their gear on (pass!) or get someone with a boat to ferry them. Terrin, the tavern keeper’s eldest daughter, told them a starry-eyed story about a man named Artigo, the greatest frontiersman that Arqualan ever produced. He knew every curve in the river and every corner of the vast swamp. He’d even killed a cave bear just by glaring at it. And best of all, he was so handsome. Err, that is, best of all, he lived down by the river only two hours walk from Wardensburg.
So the party went off to find Artigo, “King of the Prehistoric Frontier.”
On their way out of Wardensburg, the guard that Wil slapped got his revenge by tossing a full chamberpot at his head. Everyone in the gatehouse laughed.
So, as they eventually approached the riverbank, Wil announced his intention to clean himself and his giant walking tortoise off in the water. I decided that it was a good time check for a random encounter, and wouldn’t you know I rolled a 1. Another roll on my custom encounter table found four Deep Ones, three with spears, one with a net, rising in ambush once Wil started his ablutions.
The Deep Ones surprised Wil, but the attempt to catch him in the net failed badly. Hearing the croaking and the souting, the rest of the party rode on down the river bank, ready for action. For some reason, they kept trying to throw knives and daggers at the Deep Ones, even though none of them had an Archery skill. Unsurprisingly, none of the attacks hit. But the Deep Ones were equally hapless in their spear thrusts, gaining only one minor scratch on Reesan. Subico, who had been very quiet for most of the game, now took center stage as he rode one of the Deep Ones down on his camel and delivered a huge crit with his slashing sword, nearly lopping off the enemy’s head.
Next round, Rena remembered that she had both a hunting dog and a war dog and called them into battle. I blundered by having her roll to see if they did what she wanted them to do, and the roll failed, so they hesitated at the water’s edge, unsure which one to attack. That was a jerky GM move, and I feel bad about it now, but it ended up not mattering. In the next round, one of the surviving Deep Ones panicked and swam away, while the dogs latched onto the one that was about to throttle Wil, and the final one lost his head in a spray of pink mist. On the height nearby, a tall man wearing Mammoth-hide gaiters and toting a smoking Firepike greeted them. “Darn pretty country this is, but I never did get used to all the damned Deep Ones.”
Undoubtedly, they had found the great frontiersman Artigo, whose help they eagerly sought. Naturally, Wil decided the best way to handle this situation was to run up to him and slap him for not coming to help earlier.
Me: “Are you sure you want to start a fight with the guy who you’re trying to get to help you?”
Me: “OK. Do you announce your intent, perhaps?”
Wil: “I power walk up the hill. It’s obvious what I’m about to do.”
Me: “Maybe someone would like to stop Wil.”
My suggestion got Rena to at least yell up a warning to Artigo that all was not right with Wil and he might be aggressive. Horzad was too busy butchering the Deep One’s webbing and gills to use for potions, and the others were… I don’t know, cleaning the blood off their swords and ten foot poles?
A quick fight ensued. Wil quickly lost to the stronger and more skilled Artigo, who deflected the slap and delivered a quick punch to the gut, then tossed him down the hill by his hair.
Me: “Take two damage off your END and consider yourself lucky.”
Wil: “I grab my pole and start walking back up the hill to beat him with it.”
Me: “Hey, you know what? Subico has four, count ‘em!, four enemies! Wouldn’t it be funny if one of them was Artigo? It turns out you conned Artigo out of 1,000 gp for a load of furs a few years ago. You snuck off before he got wise, but he recognizes you. He shouts something impolitic and rushes over toward you, punching you in the face.”
Subico: “He punches me in the face? While I’m on my giant lizard?”
Me: “I forgot you were on the giant lizard. Well, Artigo glares intensely at the camel, and the camel wobbles and collapses, like that scene in Crocodile Dundee.”
Rena: “I’m surprised that part of Terrin’s story was true.”
Me: “Subico tumbles off his mount, and Artigo grabs him by the collar. ‘I trust you have 1,000 gold solari in those sacks, mister.’”
Explanations and negotiations ensue. Artigo is a good-natured guy and is surprisingly willing to consider their requests. He knows the river and the swamp well, and he’s been to the fortress before. More than that, he’s fought his share of Crannogmen. Of course, he’ll need to have Subico pay his debt first. While they consider if Vario is really willing to pay a thousand bucks just for the boat ride, Artigo asks why they think they’ll be able to pull this scheme off.
Horzad (his voice heavy with irony): “As you can see from our battle with the Deep Ones, our group is uniquely suited for dangerous military operations.”
After some more discussion and a struggle to keep Wil from sabotaging the game again, the PCs agree to meet Artigo tomorrow morning at the Hand in Amber tavern, where they’ll hopefully have his money, and he’ll hopefully have his punt ready to take them to the dangerous island. Uh-oh! Chongo!
Session #2 starts tomorrow. Wish them luck.