The Bloody Crown: Rhona Argusdottir

As mentioned earlier, I’m posting chapters from The Cyclops BannerA Bloody Crown, a novel I wrote. It’s a second-world fantasy inspired by the First Scots War of Independence.

As I post chapters, I’m also going to post game stats for many of the chief characters here, on the Sword’s Edge Publishing website.

Rhona Argusdottir Trevean, after the death of her father, embodies the resistance for the kingdom of Kellalh, under occupation by neighbouring Surraev for going on 15 years. Her father, the Old Baron, was the last holdout in his isolated province of Selcost, and with him gone, she is his heir. Except traditionally in Kellalh, women can’t inherit.

So, Rhona is fighting for the freedom of her kingdom and for her own freedom. Cristobel might be the commander of the army that seeks to free Kellalh, but she’ll be its leader.

As with last time, I’ll present Rhona as she would have been as a new character, and then how I see her in the novel.

A character sheet for Rhona Argusdottir, a character in the novel A Bloody Crown, as a young person
A character sheet for Rhona Argusdottir as presented in the novel A Bloody Crown

The Bloody Crown: Cristobel vel Lupus

In 2023, over on my personal site, I’m going to be posting chapters from The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown, the novel I recently finished. It’s a second-world fantasy inspired by the First Scots War of Independence.

As I post chapters, I’m also going to post game stats for many of the chief characters here, on the Sword’s Edge Publishing website.

One of the first characters you are going to meet is Cristobel vel Lupus, Count Terenquist and Captain-General of the Free Company of the Unicorn Banner. He is a key protagonist whose presence has an outsized impact on events in the story.

For Cristobel, let’s build him as a Sword’s Edge character. I’m going to provide both stats for when Cristobel was an introductory character (probably about 20 years before the events in the novel) and then as the character as presented in the novel. That later character will have had 10 Advances—one for every couple of years of life experience. He probably would have earned five of those in the first two years of his career as a mercenary, with the others accumulating after.

I’m Not Dead Yet

I’m feeling better . . .

I am in the middle of playtesting a new game. For those who used to support my Patreon, it is based on the Quantum and GOD setting, but now called the Lost Earth. I don’t think it will ever see the light of day, simply because of the cost of bringing it out along with its setting, and the system is derived from its setting, so I don’t think I’d be happy releasing it separately.

A figure stands before broken structures looking like fallen skyscrapers beneath the title The Lost Earth: Rebirth, and the subtitle of Adventures in a Broken World

I said the same thing about League of Misfits, so who knows.

Anyway, the playtest is not only helping me with the system, but also helping me with myself.

My formative RPG experience was D&D—AD&D, 2E, and 3/3.5. Until the early 2000s, I almost exclusively played D&D—a bit of Top Secret, some Gamma World, Some WEG Star Wars and a bit of Champions was the sum total of my RPG experience.

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RPG Research: Sea Raiders Vs. Ugarit

Okay, so my most recent #RPGResearch post goes a little something like this:

In The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age, Assaf Yasur-Landau references one of the most common primary sources on the Sea Peoples: letters using the medium of clay tablets that warn of raiding parties (p. 164). In one, the chief prefect warns the king of 20 enemy ships, while in another, the King of Ugarit relates to the King of Alashiya of sighting of seven ships and asks if that king has sighted other vessels.

In general, those ships are often said to likely be Sea Peoples, though there is no definitive proof. Piracy was not an uncommon profession, and a fleet of seven ships seems in line with what Homer has Odysseus speak of in the Odyssey, when Odysseus tells of fitting out nine ships for a raid (14.248).

If you are interested in the likely linkages of the Myceneans and piracy, have a look at Jeffrey P. Emanuel’s chapter “Odysseus’ Boat? New Mycenaean Evidence from the Egyptian New Kingdom” in Discovery of the Classical World: An Interdisciplinary Workshop on Ancient Societies.

If nine is the size of the fleet raised by what Homer would have us call a king, twenty does seem a significant threat if you are the lords of Ugarit. But how much of a threat?

Lionel Casson in his book The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times, assesses that at the time of the Trojan War—the Late Bronze Age—ships would have 20-100 oars, with 50 being normal (pp. 38-39). Each of those oars would be manned by an individual who was also a warrior—basically your entire crew were marines. That would mean that seven ships could have 700 soldiers, but would more likely have 350, as the fleet would probably be made up of vessels of varying sizes. That major fleet that worried the chief prefect of Ugarit could have 2,000 troops, but even 1,000 is substantial given that the population of Ugarit has been extrapolated to be between 3,000 and almost 14,000 (see W. Randall Garr’s “A Population Estimate of Ancient Ugarit” in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research issue 266 from 1987).

And if Helen did have the face that launches a thousand ships? An army of 50,000 would indeed be terrifying—if utterly fanciful for the period.

RPG Research: Kushites in Egypt

Nefertiti Overdrive Cover

I’m not very vocal on Twitter—my main social media presence . . . if it even qualifies as that. One thing I’ve recently done is posted little history tidbits I learned while doing research for RPGs—either games or adventures. I’ve been posting them under the hashtag RPGResearch.

The most recent one comes for Dr. Donald B. Redford’s From Slave to Pharaoh: The Black Experience of Ancient Egypt which was research material for Nefertiti Overdrive.

This is from very early on in the books in which Dr. Redford recounts in general the connections and relationships between the Egyptians and the Kushites/Nubians. While the narrative of Kush as some kind of satellite/tributary of Egypt is now questioned—the two certainly had connections, but the Egyptians likely culturally adopted from the Nubians as much as they influenced development there. Still, there were expatriates of Kush living in Egypt, and Dr. Redford suggests that while they were segregated, there was also intermarriage and cultural assimilation, with Kushites holding some minor bureaucratic and courtly positions, as well as lesser priesthoods. (pages 6-9)

The mention of the Medjay is actually anachronistic for the Old Kingdom. Dr. Redford indicates that the Kushites were indeed linked to a gendarmerie known as the “kilt-wearers,” but that the term Medjay is attributed to the New Kingdom and was also a region in Lower Nubia. (page 20)

Getting In the Spotlight

One of the challenges for designing an adventure is to have it both appeal to the players and insure their characters have a chance for the spotlight. Even when one know how to provide a character with a spotlight, the chances for the spotlight can become an issue.

Most of my home games run three to four hours, and to be honest, only about 3/4 of that is actual play time – on a good night. I get through maybe four scenes, sometimes up to six if the players are focused. Depending on attendance, I have three to five players at the table. If it’s a good night with a couple of players missing, there’s the chance for each character to get the spotlight. When everyone’s attending – usually the nights when the lowest percentage of time is devoted to the game – it’s unlikely each character will get the spotlight in a session.

In home games, this isn’t too much of an issue as long as characters regularly get the spotlight. Anecdotal information makes me think that players really remember spotlight moments for their characters, and if their character gets to shine once every couple of games, that keeps most players happy.

To be honest, if it doesn’t, the solution isn’t at the table, it’s away from the table. The GM and the player need to have a discussion about sharing the spotlight. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter that the player doesn’t understand the logistics. If the player isn’t really keeping track, it might feel like everyone else’s characters are regularly getting the spotlight while the player’s character is overlooked every other game. It might simply be an explanation of numbers – X scenes vs Y players means 1 spotlight every other game.

If that’s not it, if the player just thinks they deserve the spotlight regularly even if other character don’t get their turn, then that player needs to understand that sharing at the table is a part of the game, as important as any rule in any rulebook. If the player cannot accept that, I don’t believe that’s a player you want at your table. Try to explain the importance of everyone having fun, of not allowing one player to dominate in anything. In the end you’ve got to be a Vulcan about this: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

But what about at conventions, where you are running a one-shot for players you don’t know? My convention games are generally designed to run for about 3 hours and 30 minutes of a four hour block. You have to expect about 15 minutes at the outset for introductions and a quick rundown of the system. I usually have a 10 minute bio-break half-way through the four hours, and then I plan to end about 10-15 minutes before the end of the block, so that we can clean up and be away from the table to allow the next GM at least 5 minutes to prep the table.

In that 3 1/2 hours, I generally get in about six to eight scenes. These include one or two short scenes – either because they are designed for that or because the players just bull through them. All good. I never run a con game with more than six players, and four is the sweet spot, so there is no problem allowing each character a scene in which to shine.

Because I use pre-gen characters when I run con games, it’s actually super easy to design the adventure with the characters in mind so that each character has a scene designed around them. It doesn’t always work out – the player doesn’t play the character as expected or simply misses the cues that this is their scene – but because there are extra scenes, one can always alter a later scene to provide that spotlight. Not as easy on the fly, but totally do-able.

It’s also much more difficult – but super important – to control players that want their characters to constantly be in the spotlight. This is when I get heavy-handed and start pointing out that this scene with the computer that needs to be hacked should probably be focused on the hacker, and the soldier should probably be guarding the door rather than working the keyboard. I don’t like to do this because I like the players to have the freedom to adapt the character to their play style, but the point is for everyone to have fun, and I will pull someone aside to remind them of that if necessary.

Spotlight, to me, is very important because it is one of the ways to create strong memories and provide positive feedback to players. Players generally love a spotlight moment for their character, and creating spotlights for characters – in my experience – gets the players to invest more in the game and have more fun.

And please don’t forget I’ve got a Patreon, and the first adventure – “Lawless Heaven” – has been released on it. I would appreciate your support.

Campaign Journal – the Second Session

The long awaited session two summary.

If you’ve listened to the “Story So Far” at the Adventures of the Ottawa Warband, you don’t really need to read this.

So, our heroes had set off after Sven, in the hopes of reaching Balagard first.

Historical note: I made Balagard an island in the south-west of Finland. There is mention of Balagard in some of the legends, and it was mentioned in A Brief History Of the Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans? by Jonathan Clements, but I couldn’t find any real information on it. A link to Louhi, the Finn death goddess, was also mentioned in Clements, but in relation to another location. I just put the two together, picked an island by zooming in on an archipelago in Google Maps, and BOOM, that’s Balagard.

So, the group arrives only to find that they have beaten Sven to Balagard, but two of his ships are already at the island. Landing, the group finds Harald the Black, Thorgil’s brother-in-law. Luckily, Harald knows Toste, the NPC captain of the group’s ship, and so is willing to accept the group and introduce them to Helga,  his wife and Thorgil’s sister. The group has to announce Thorgil’s death, but it turns out Helga had a prophetic dream, and no one is much surprised. Further, Harald and Helga’s son, also a Harald, turns out to be Thorgil’s son, fostered to his sister for undisclosed reasons.

The group and Harald the Black begin to make plans to attack Sven’s men and remove them before Sven arrives. In the midst of this discussion, Harald the Black’s daughter Visna takes interest in Nemit, who has not joined in the conversation as he doesn’t speak Norse. Visna speaks to Nemit in his own language, and reveals she has been gifted with all languages by the witch Ullin.

No one in Balagard believes in the witch, but after Visna’s display, the group decide it might be wise to find her and consult her. Young Harald joins them. The group encounters two “trolls,” Dis and Pater (who refer to themselves as Didius and Pertinia). These guardians are easily mollified by Visna’s cookies. The witch reveals herself and tells the group that they are threatened by “the Visitor.” The group learns that Young Harald will find aid in Aldeigjuborg, on the route to Miklagard. The encounter ends suddenly when the witch announces that the Visitor has arrived.

The group returns to find Toste’s ship burning. One of their members, Blatik, has died in the fire. Sven Helmcarver’s ship has arrived. Sven’s men are busy fighting the fire and rescuing those whom they can. Faced with Young Harald, whom Sven guesses is Thorgil’s son, Sven denies murdering Thorgil. He tells a story of a disagreement over an unpaid debt that ended in drawn swords. Sven says that while he had wounded Thorgil, he hadn’t killed him. Holm’s Truth-Reading reveals this to be true, leading to no end of confusion.

Using Object Reading with the remains of Toste’s ship, Nemit sees a dark-haired, thin-featured man with a long moustache set it alight without waking anyone. The man turns and recognizes Nemit, speaking to him. This throws Nemit out of the vision.

The group agree to accept Young Harald as their captain and join with Sven Helmcarver to travel to Aldeigjuborg in an attempt to uncover more information about the Bulgar Gold.

And that’s where we left it at the end of the second session.

Campaign Journal: Viking True20 Actual Play

If you’ve been reading my campaign journal, you know a little something about the Viking campaign I’m running for my RPG group in Ottawa. I decided I wanted to do an actual play, and the first steps have been completed. The first episode, a “story so far” episode, is now available.

You can find information at the new blog dedicated to the Adventures of the Ottawa Warband. I apologize for the name. Not as cool as Accidental Survivors. We were on the spot with this one. The blog is at herlid.blogspot.com, herlid being Old Norse for warband, and warband being a group of vikings joined together under a leader or captain.

I will continue the campaign journal here, as well as cross-posting everything over to the blog. The actual play podcast will only be available at the blog. If you are interested, you can subscribe to the feed to get the podcasts as they come out.

Campaign Journal: Conclusions from Session One

The first session didn’t totally sell me on True20. I realized this was partly my problem. I was still stuck in a d20 mindset. I missed the Minons rule, which would have made the combat with Hygelac’s warband fit to my preconception. Also, while the iconic weapon concept I mentioned in my last post dealt with the combat competency gap, this could also have been dealt with–mostly–with the rules as written.

Here’s the thing: I started the characters at 3rd level to give them some experience. I chose 3rd level based on my d20 experience–the character is more capable, but is not yet nigh-invulnerable due to high hit points. Without hit points, I could have started the characters at 10th level.

Because the Toughness save doesn’t have level dependent bonuses, a 10th level character is as vulnerable as a 3rd level character, unless the 10th level character has burned feats on increasing his Toughness. I should have started the characters at 6th or even 8th level. That would have made them as competent as I had hoped, but would not make them tanks–the outcome of starting at such as level in d20.

A couple of problems remained, based on the conflict of my conception and the True20 rules.

Players would still choose weapons based on the mechanical benefits, or if they chose based on style, would face mechanical penalties. Giving iconic weapons a +4 damage allowed players to choose style over mechanics without penalty.

While a wounded character did have a penalty to most actions, it was not progressive. It was only applied once, no matter how many times the character was wounded. I changed that to a – 1 penalty per wound. It creates the kind of deteriorating condition for which I usually look.

Having addressed those problems with house rules, True20 is now chugging along very well. Truth be told, though, I have never met a system I haven’t house-ruled, so only applying two house-rules (so far) is impressive in itself.

One thing I couldn’t figure out and I need to research is the use of ranged weapons in melee. I know how d20 deals with it, but I couldn’t find anything in True20. Given that I totally missed the Minions rules, this may simply be my oversight. I’ll check back in later if I learn something more. As it was, the ranged weapon in question was an iconic weapon, so no worry.

Campaign Journal – the First Session

The Campaign Journal has kind of stagnated, hasn’t it? Let’s get this puppy back on the rails.

So, the first session.

I had forced the players to provide character concepts without the mechanics. This was kind of a history meets character niche posting. This was what we used to build the characters in True20.  It worked surprisingly well–at least for me. The biggest problem during character creation was that I only had one book and there were five players. I really liked building from concept to mechanics, and the structure of True20 allowed for a pretty open process. With only three classes and builds based on feats and powers, the class decision was pretty much made for us.

I also devised some character backgrounds and updated others to match the historical setting. That was fun.

My only issue with True20 was how it approached multi-classing. Maybe it’s the d20 Modern guy in me, but I like multi-classing as a means to create unique characters and complete character concepts. The only real penalty in True20 to multi-classing was to saving throws. While the impact is minimal, especially at higher levels, as I was hoping to create real heroes, I waived that penalty, and allowed character to multi-class freely–however, the character only had one core ability, based on the character’s first class.

The character creation actually took a bit of time because we only had one document. One of the players already had True20, but we were using the revised version, which had a few minor changes. Another player had the quick-play rules, which are apparently significantly different. Given that, the Revised True20 book was in great demand.

The characters were:
Holm: an older Viking who lost a hand to access the Odinpower, much as Odin lost his eye
Audun: an Orkneyman who is part Celt and has access to that culture’s magic through his mother’s blood
Blatik: a Frank who was fated to kill a god or forever suffer servitude
Theodore: a Byzantine scholar, out to learn about the world
Nemit: a Magyar wanderer

Finally, characters all ready, we embarked on the adventure. The players had been asked to provide a reason why their characters would gather at Ravenwood, a small hold on the shores of the Baltic, near modern Rostock. The hall at Ravenwood is the fastness of Hygelac, who calls himself the Goth (purposefully anachronistic, and referring to the Germanic tribe rather than the modern emo-culture).

At the hall, a seeress, called the Angel of Death in the village, indicates that the group have a shared destiny, and marks each of them with a rune, granting each access to a “mythic power.” Most of the group picked their power from a list, though some accepted random assignments. We had two characters who already had limited access to magical powers.

As he had dreamed of Holm coming and taking his sword, Hygelac precipitated a battle, which drew in all the PCs due to their shared destiny.

And this is where I fell down as a GM. I’m familiar with the d20 system, but not totally with the True20 system. Toughness saves were new to me. Further, I hadn’t noted the Minions rules. Minions would have worked perfectly for what I had envisioned, but instead, the group struggled through a very difficult battle.

This led me to do two things. First, I reread the rules, and noted the Minions rules. Second, because I wanted every character to be somewhat useful in combat, I created “iconic weapons,” a weapon type that is tied to a character.

Each character would chose a specific type of weapon (longsword, scimitar, longbow, whatever) and when using that type of weapon would gain three benefits. 1) A +4 bonus that could be applied to attack or defence, based on the player’s decision at the outset of combat. 2) A +4 damage rating. 3) Can be used in ranged or melee without penalty.

The reason for 1) was to allow the character to excel beyond their mechanics in combat. Even a character built to be a scholar would have a fair chance in combat. Those who are built for combat are truly frightening.

The reason for 2) was that I wanted characters to choose weapons based on concept and style rather than mechanics. If you want to play a dagger-man, you can, and it can be as effective as a sword! True20’s more abstract combat system makes this workable even with two-weapon fighting, as it only adds a +2 to the damage.

The reason for 3) was simply based on the cinematic and action-adventure bent of the campaign. In many books and movies, characters are using bows like clubs and throwing swords as a last resort. This allowed for that level of cinematic action.

And all of the bonuses for the iconic weapon were based on a concept of cinematic action rather than realistic. The more abstract combat system of True20 helped this along tremendously. I also made a ruling that there was no need to track ammunition. I adapted the Savage Worlds system for Allies which gives a variety of categories to track ammunition usage rather than tracking each and every arrow. This means that we can go with the fiction of a 6 second combat round that includes multiple attacks or attempts, all defined by a single roll. I’ve discussed my thoughts on that elsewhere.

Defeating Hygelac and his warband, the spirit of the Angel of Death reveals the existence of the Bulgar Gold and divulges that Thorgil of Visiby in Gotland knows its secret. Off the PCs go to Visiby, only to learn that Thorgil was just murdered. At first, the PCs are suspects, but they are able to gain the trust of one of Thorgil’s friends, and through him, Thorgil’s wife.  Thorgil’s wife could not help them with information on the Bulgar Gold, but directed them to Thorgil’s sister in Balagard.

Through his mythic power of Object Reading, Nemit saw a vision of a red-haired man in a red cloak murder Thorgil with his own sword during a friendly conversation. The murderer was identified as Sven Helmcarver, a sea-king (leader of a large warband and fleet, but without any land) of some renown. Sven and his ship, the Wolf’s Breath, had set sail the morning before the group arrived–the morning after Thorgil’s death.

The group set off after Sven, believing he too sought Thorgil’s sister in Balagard.

All in all, I thought it went pretty well. I was wrong, though, as we lost one player. The player who ran Blatik did not feel the game was suitable for an inexperienced player. I asked, through email, for more information on what the problem might be. I wrote that if the player enjoyed the campaign, then we could fix whatever deficiencies he may have encountered. I never heard back, so I figure he either didn’t enjoy the company or the campaign.

Down to four players, which, for me, is the sweet spot. I would have liked to have heard more from Blatik’s player, and since a lot of the plot was altered to suit his character’s background, I was sorry to lose his character. In the end, though, the players that remained expressed enthusiasm for the campaign.