RPG pre-history: the Chinese dice promotion games

Migrated from a Twitter thread.

Here’s a little early “roleplaying” history: some time around 830 CE a man named Li He (who had won first place in the palace examinations in 827) invents a game named 採選 Cǎixuǎn, Selection with Dice, about promotion and demotion in the ranks of the state bureaucracy.

It becomes popular straight away: in 838 Fang Qianli (also a Jinshi graduate) encounters a group of civil service scholars playing the game on the shores of Lake Dongting and later publishes his own version under the title 骰子選格 Touzi Xuange, Rules for Selection with Dice:

In the spring of the third year of the Kaicheng [reign period (836-840); 838], I moved northward by sea. When the boat sailed to the north side of [Lake] Dongting, there was such a strong wind that the small boat had to be tied to the rural river bank for three days. [I] met a few people who claimed to be presented scholars [of the Tang civil service examination] using bone dice in pairs as a game, throwing [them] in turn on the board and, according to the sum of pips, starting [their] careers as different government officials. The higher [the number], the higher the ranking while the lower [the number], the lower the ranking. At the end of the game, there were some among these guests who ended up [either] as a guardsman or a clerk while there were others who honourably became prime ministers and generals; there were some who had successively gained good reputations but then were unable to rise again while there were others who began in humble positions but [soon] were promoted swiftly to high positions. Generally, [their] successes and failures very much resembled those [games I] previously mentioned in that [the outcomes were] unrelated to being wise or foolish but were merely based their divinations on odd and even [numbers]. … [Thus, I] arranged and listed the beginning posts and government officials item-by-item in terms of promotion and demotion to create the Checkers Selection.

Translation from: Ngai, May-Ying Mary (2011), From Entertainment to Enlightenment: A Study on a Cross-cultural Religious Board Game with an Emphasis on the Table of Buddha Selection Designed by Ouyi Zhixu of the Late Ming Dynasty, PhD Thesis:

By 1161 the encyclopædia 通志 Tongzhi lists 14 different dice selection rulebooks; using these you can “roleplay” as an official from almost any period. Examples include the rules for:

  • 春秋彩選 Dice Selection of the Spring & Autumn period [770–476 BCE]
  • 漢官儀彩選 Dice Selection of the Han [206 BCE–220 CE]
  • 元豐官制彩選 Dice Selection of the Yuanfeng [1078–85 CE].

These games were getting very complex so there was also an: 刪繁彩選 Abridged Dice Selection. Wang Pizhi (1031–97+) reports something that will be familiar to anyone who has a friend that invents games as a hobby (my emphasis):

Recently, Cao Gu, Director of the Ministry of War, invented a game called New Rules for Old Joys, based on a former game [of leaves], and the rules are especially detailed and tight. The rules are the following: use six flat dice, ten rhinoceros horn lions, and starting from the section [?] concerning bowl and tokens (tie), fifteen categories are distinguished. Each category has a description, and there are altogether two hundred and twenty-seven well-known [dice?] combinations and two hundred and forty-seven special [dice?] combinations, totalling four hundred and seventy-four combinations. I have the rules, but no one in the world can play it.

Translation from: Lo, Andrew (2000), “The Game of Leaves: An Inquiry into the Origin of Chinese Playing Cards”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, volume 63, number 3, pp. 389–406:

The earliest almost-complete set of rules we have is for 漢官儀 Han Guanyi Official System of the Han Dynasty, created by Liu Ban (劉攽, 1022–88). In this version there are at least 152 official positions and the game is played with a pair of dice; the outcome of the roll either promotes or demotes your character:

For example, a roll of 12 sets a player off as an Erudite, rank 1,000 bushels. Turning to the Erudite section, there are then instructions on how to proceed depending on the next roll. For example:

  • Dice Roll: Double 6 — Directory of Uprightness under the Chancellor (20 points). Rank: equivalent to 2,000 bushels.
  • Dice Roll: 11 — Imperial Household Grandee (20 points). Rank: equivalent to 2,000 bushels.
  • Dice Roll: 9 — Provincial Inspector (13 points). Rank: 600 bushels.
  • Dice Roll: 8 — Grand Tutor of a Kingdom (10 points). Rank: equivalent to 2,000 bushels.
  • Dice Roll: 3 — falls ill (10 point penalty)
  • Dice Roll: 2 — stripped of office, returns home to teach privately (10 point penalty)
from: Lo, Andrew (2000), “The Game of Leaves: An Inquiry into the Origin of Chinese Playing Cards”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, volume 63, number 3, pp. 389–406:

Official System of the Han Dynasty was created by Liu Ban as a youngster… but in a classic piece of *RPG Drama*, his older brother 劉敞 Liu Chong took the rules and published them under his own name, and they appear under Chong’s name in Tuotuo’s History of Song (1345) alongside four other rulebooks. Liu Ban himself was in charge of the compilation of real Han history for the historical reference book 資治通鑑 Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance, 1084); so Official System of the Han Dynasty was the first in a long tradition of historian-authored games.

Since the rules for promotion and demotion also sometimes included reasons, Xu Du (d. ca. 1156) suggested that at the end of the game you can gather up all your titles and pro/demotion reasons and compose a biography of your “character”!

These types of games later developed into games played with large boards containing all of the positions, with some Qing variants having up to 600 different positions (see more about these in the thesis cited earlier, here).

Hot Springs Island

Hot Springs Island: Session 2, the Bathhouse

Previously: Hot Springs Island: Session 0/1

Cast for this session:

  • Ruber Valis, elementalist
  • Hootford Jr., guard and associate of Ruber
  • Anvil, master artisan

The characters are standing in the entrance hall of the bath-house. Music is playing throughout the area. An elvish waiter has just walked straight through Anvil.

Slowly the party realized that they were looking at some kind of illusion as they moved through the throng of elves. The elves appeared to be waiting for something to begin.

Soon the crowd parted, and another group of elves entered; each dressed in deep blue robes whose colours changed and shifted as they walked. The newly-arrived elves walked down the entrance hall and into the large chamber at the end, and were closely followed by large animated stone statues in the forms of various animals. Each of these statues carried a chest on its back.

The parade moved onwards into the grand chamber and the party followed it. The chamber opened up through all three levels of the bath-house to a large dome at the top, through which a blue sky could be seen. From the topmost level streams of steaming water gushed down channels to the levels below, forming a pool in the base of the chamber. In and around the pool are terraces of white stone seats, the water flowing between them until it circled around a central stage. Through the clouds of steam can be seen flowering plants and vines, growing up the walls to the terraces and walkways above.

The grand chamber of the Bathhouse.

The blue-robed elves are greeted by other important-looking elves and begin to make their way to the next level of the bath-house. The party notice two of the group who peel off and walk down a corridor to the left, and the party decide to follow them.

They enter what appears to be a changing room. Elves in various states of undress chat and prepare themselves for bathing. Some elves are opening and shutting lockers, seemingly using long thin objects as keys. The two elves that they are trailing meet a third, wearing only a loincloth, who follows them into a curtained-off nook, and one of the pair draws the curtain shut. The party examines the changing room and realizes that some of the furniture seems to be incorporeal. Hootford suspects the use of magic and lowers the visor of his anti-magic armour — passed down through his family for many years.

With the visor down Hootford is shocked to find that the room they are standing in is in a state of disrepair. He is able to see through the illusion of the elves, and notes that many of the seats have crumbled, which explains why they seem “incorporeal”. At this point the two blue-robed elves depart the curtained room, drawing the curtain closed behind themselves, and make their way back to the grand chamber. The party checks the nook and finds the lifeless body of the third elf sprawled across a chair: he has been strangled!

The party quickly returns to the main chamber. The parade of elves and statues has progressed up the stairs to the next level, where some kind of presentation is being held. At the centre is — as Ruber identifies — some kind of water elemental who is receiving gifts from the blue-robed elves. Each of them takes her hand in turn as they offer her the chests carried on the backs of the animated stone animals. Finally, she is given a beautiful sparkling silver tiara.

The blue-robed elves disperse and make their way back down to the lowest level and begin to choose seats. Some of them direct other important-looking elves to the front rows; clearly some kind of performance is about to start. Other helpers bring large cloth-covered objects down to the lower level and arrange them around the outer perimeter of the seating. The remainder of the seating is taken up by other elves, and many more gather around the rims of the terraces above.

After everything is ready, the water elemental descends from the second floor and takes the centre stage. A blue-robed elf presents her to the audience, and a small ceremony is held where she is presented with two statues crafted in her likeness, which are placed upon the stage alongside her. After this, the lights dim slightly as her performance begins.

The water elemental, now holding an amphora, begins to sing. It is a beautiful, if plain, song, but as she sings, she pours water from the amphora onto the stage. The water splashes and burbles as she pours and it begins to sound like the water is singing along with her. In fact, it definitely is — it sounds like a choir. As she finishes pouring the water, from the pool around her rise many other smaller water elementals, singing and swaying to the music. There must be fifty of them now, standing around the stage and in amongst the seated elves.

As the song draws to a close, the elves clap. The main elemental bows and begins to sing the next song, and as she does so a low noise begins to come from the audience — the elves are singing along. The water elemental smiles and continues to sing but soon has a puzzled look on her face; something is wrong with the way the elves are singing. Hootford (who has a musical past, having sung songs with fellow soldiers for many years) realizes that they are singing the song backwards. Nevertheless, the water elementals continue their song, until it reaches a peak, but at the height of the music the elves standing next to the curtained objects tear off the curtains, revealing empty picture frames.

The nearest elementals are sucked into the frames as the elves continue to sing louder and louder, disappearing one by one until none are left on the stage. The main elemental, furious, screams and raises her hands and a wave of boiling water and scorching steam erupts from the stage, obliterating the front row of elves in a moist explosion. The rest of the elves in the outer seats continue to chant, their faces fixed in grim concentration, until at last, the water elemental appears to be ripped in two with each half sucked into one of the two statues standing on the stage.

Silence and a cloud of mist descend upon the scene, and after a moment the elves begin to grin and clap, turning to each other with excited faces. Whatever they were doing, it has been accomplished.

The party look at each other, confused, until there is a blink, and the lights increase in brightness again. The grand chamber is empty, aside from a few elves walking around the perimeter.

At the entrance to the grand chamber, the party can see some elves talking to each other and laughing, and as they make their way over, they realize that this is the same gathering that they had encountered on their way into the bath-house. They seem to be encountering some kind of loop in the illusion. With no idea what is going on, they decide to leave and come back later, so they descend the staircase to the outside…

…only to find themselves walking back up the staircase into the entrance hall again. They attempt this several more times until they realize that they are unable to leave.

With little else to do they decide to watch the proceedings again. This time they follow the parade as it progresses up to the second floor and notice two blue-robed elves splitting off from the main group as they ascend the staircase. They follow these elves into another room on the second floor which seems to be split into two large sections, containing hot and cold baths. The two elves turn toward the cold end, inviting a nearby elf to come with them. Together they wade toward the end of the pools and then up a narrow corridor from which the coldest water seems to be flowing. The three enter a smaller and colder room, which must be the coldest in the complex; there are no other elves in here at the moment.

After a short and suddenly heated discussion the two blue-robed elves seize the other one and drag them towards a large glowing blue crystal near the water inlet. One of them grabs the victim’s head by the hair and forces their face against the crystal: they let out a scream which is quickly cut off as their face begins to turn blue and icy. The two murderers release the body and the dying elf’s skin turns a frosty white as ice creeps along their limbs.

Hootford checks through his visor; while there is no water in this room there are some shards of the crystal from the vision on the floor. He directs Ruber who collects them into his satchel: perhaps he can study them later and discover what kind of device it is.1It’s an ice elemental core.

Back in the grand chamber, the rest of the performance plays out as before. Once the time loop resets, the characters start to cough and splutter water. Realizing that something is going wrong, they try to find a window to climb out of, only to discover that it looks like the bath-house is deep under water.

Eventually, feeling like they are choking on thin air, they make their way to the very top level of the bath-house where they find a circular chamber. In the centre of the room is a portal with an attached device containing elven symbols, but around the outside of the room are a series of statues depicting various humanoids: people, some large brutish creatures, and lizard-like men, until at the end of the row they find realistic statues of themselves. Crawling on their knees by this point, coughing up salty water, they crawl to the base of their statues, where they collapse, gripping at the stone.

At once the illusion vanishes. Spitting out the last of the water they realize the statues have all disappeared. The portal in the centre of the room remains, but after some examination they decide they are unable to operate it without knowledge of the elven language. They descend the stairs back toward the base of the bath-house, which they can now see is in a decrepit and overgrown state.

As they descend the stairs from the upper levels, they are greeted with a round of applause. Sitting on the stage in the middle are the four people they had seen earlier outside in the city. “We never thought you’d make it out, well done!” says the man in brightly-coloured clothing, who introduces himself as Jack the Jeweller (“Surely you’ve heard of my work? No?”)

The two groups chat and discuss how they came to be on the island; Jack’s group is here because he is looking for a rumoured elven forge, and invited some friends — as well as paid mercenaries — to sign up voluntarily with the Martell company in search of the forge and other riches. When they realize that the Martell name is unfamiliar to the party they invite them to come back with them to The Unbroken anchored in the harbour. It is the ship of Captain Rand, who is in charge of the “adventurers’ guild” around here, and can probably help them out.

Eunice — Jack’s wizard friend — mentions to Ruber that it is unsafe for mages to remain in the city after dark, and suggests that they all make their way to the boat. So, all together they make their way down the central staircase of the city to where Jack’s party’s boat is tied up at the bottom. They row out to meet the ship and find many other people waiting on the boat: these are the members of Rand’s adventurers’ guild.

Captain Rand is a large and intimidating man, but offers the party the use of his services, and Rand’s Retreat — a small outpost established on an island to the south — in return for a cut of anything they remove from the island. He has been given sole dominion of the island, which is now being called Hot Springs Island, after the Martel Company found that their marines were ill-equipped for the exercise of exploring and exploiting the island (not to mention the attrition rates suffered during the Company’s early expeditions). Jack’s party mention that many of the “adventurers” are here under duress, having had their debts on-sold to the Martell company.

The party agree to Rand’s terms and have their first proper meal since being shipwrecked on the island.

Later that evening, Ruber pens a letter:

Dearest Father,

I do not know when or even if this letter may find you, but I call upon the majesty of our house for its speedy delivery to you.

I find myself once again on a strange boat. We have been delivered to Captain Rand, a merry if somewhat intimidating man. We were escorted here some new acquaintances: Jack, Eunice, Baxter and Audrey. We met these fine fellow adventurers during a thoroughly confusing trip through the island’s bath house. As you know father, I have never frequented a bath house nor even entertained the thought of it. Mother would be horrified for one, but as you know I have yet to outgrow the adolescent shame of one’s body. I know you have brought the rod upon my back numerous times to overcome this shame, yet I fear it still takes hold of me.

Anyway, we found ourselves in a bath house. And not just any bath house but one of the ancient elves. Despite your insistence to say otherwise, my books have indeed come in use. The elves have proven to be the erotic race that my images in my books portray them as. This is not the “fantasies of a confused and feeble libido” as you once yelled at me but is instead historical fact. I pray that you respect the work of scholars more in future.

I write to you however not to change your mind about my disposition but instead to ask you for your input. Having entered this bathhouse, we found ourselves in some sort of historical time loop, viewing an elven festival or practise, as if we were there ourselves. We were able to interact with this loop only in that we could walk about and view, but not physically interact with, different parts of it. Once again, your decision to allow Hootford to travel with me proves a wise one, as he soon discovered he had the power of HelmView. He could easily switch between this historical view and a contemporary one. I have tried to ask him more about how he achieved this, but he seems reluctant or unable to explain.

What we viewed during this loop was somewhat troubling. We saw multiple murders, and it seemed that the highborn were being targeted. This, of course, sent shivers down my spine. Yet the worst was to come, as it seemed that during this ceremony the elves interacted with some elemental creatures only to then trap them in something like a painting.

While viewing this horror, we as a party become physically uncomfortable. This discomfort soon became panic as we all felt that we were drowning, despite not being under water. Eventually, we made our way into some sort of control room. In the centre of this room was what we surmised was a planar portal of some kind, and behind this we’re strange statues of ourselves. We tried to this portal to escape to no avail. Thinking quickly, I groped at my statue…

It was not until we touched our own statues that this “loop” ended, and we found ourselves back in the present day. We were soon faced with that friendly band of fellow adventurers, who have since brought us to this boat. I am still trying to make sense of what has happened to us. Do not fear for I also continue to work on our little colonial project. I will not fail you father, but I must again seek your advice. What do you think this “loop” means? What is the connection between the elves and these elemental creatures? Are the events we saw somehow connected to the apparent abandonment of this city? Most importantly, are you proud and do you love me?


Hot Springs Island

Hot Springs Island: Session 6, The Forge

Cast for this session:

  • Ruber Valis, elementalist
  • Hootford Jr., guard and associate of Ruber
  • Rickard Astley, healer (cutter?)

The party awakened to the sun rising above the misty jungle below. They were encamped on the edge of a grassy field partway up the mountainside.1HS-21-03 Across the field lay the Egg and a flock of horned beasts who gazed at them warily while chewing their morning cud.

During the previous evening Ruber and Hootford had managed to properly identify the items that they had found during the Topaz Spree:

  • Ruber has the Blasted Wand, which works the same as the WWNWWN Worlds Without Number (2021), a ruleset (and more) by Kevin Crawford spell The Howl of Light, except that it forms a column extending from the end of the wand. Each time it is used some of the end of the wand is burned off; roll a 1D4 and on a 1, the wand is destroyed.
  • Hootford has the Shield of Sunrise which can be activated to emit a blast of light, blinding anyone looking towards it for 1D4 rounds (reflex save to avoid). It is recharged by being exposed to light from a sunrise.

The party decided to continue to move inland and up towards the volcano’s peak (Ruber: “shall we summit this mountain?”), and set off through the early morning sunlight.

Further up the mountain,2HS-17-03 the jungle parted to reveal a bubbling pool of magma, surrounded by red-gold plants shimmering in the reflected heat. Beyond the red-hot pool was a cave going deep into the volcanic cliff-face. The plants around the pool are each topped by puffy fronds like those of pampas grass or toi-toi. Hootford immediately approached the plants to collect some for his master, but as soon as he disturbed them, he was showered by a cloud of pollen. He immediately found himself dizzy and stumbled toward the magma, only to be stopped quickly by Rickard.

Across the other side of the pool, a woman erupted from the cave in the cliff. She drew her bow on the run and loosed an arrow back towards the cave entrance, from which emerged two large scruffy-looking birds with large beaks. One of them swooped at her and managed to cut her arm with vicious-looking claws.

Rickard sprung into action, throwing his scalpel at the nearest bird. The throw went wide and the scalpel embedded itself in the dirt at its feet. In response the bird flew towards him, battering him with its filthy wings as it raked and bit at his unprotected flesh.

Ruber began to sing as Hootford moved to shield him. Ruber forcibly exerted his will over the other bird, entering its mind and impelling it to fly to him and coat its talons in one of his fast-acting poisons.

Now unarmed, Rickard ran to fetch grab his knife from the soil, as the bird inflicted a deep wound on his shoulder. It shook its filthy wings and from within the feathers of the bird a shower of writhing maggots dropped onto the fresh injury. Some of the maggots fell directly into the wound and began to bury themselves into Rickard’s flesh.

Rickard struck back with his knife, cutting the horrible bird’s horrible throat, and it crashed to the ground. Blood pooled around it and the wriggling maggots started to dig into the bloody soil.

The main threat removed, bird-Ruber flew into the cave to check for any remaining enemies. After finding the cave clear, he flew high above the magma pool, licked the poison from the bird’s talons, and experienced first-hand the ordeal of pitching head-first into molten rock. The bird’s feathers sizzled and burned as the fat maggots roasted and popped upon the red-hot surface.

With the fighting over, the woman introduced herself: she was Joni, a ranger who had come to the island looking for her brother. She had also signed up with the crew of Jack the Jeweller to look for the fabled Forge of the island, and was out in the jungle searching by herself, as she thought that Jack’s current plan of scouring the Elven city would be fruitless: “the sooner we find the forge, the sooner I can get Jack to help me find my brother”.

She spoke fast and excitedly; she believed she had located the Forge in the cave and was eager to return to Jack to tell him the good news. Thanking the party for their assistance, she warned Rickard to seek medical attention quickly or the maggots could eventually be deadly.

Rickard used his medical experience to successfully fish out the maggots one-by-one from his wound. Joni was impressed by the skill with which he removed the infestation and bade them farewell, saying that she would meet them back at Captain Rand’s ship.

The cave appeared to be constructed by hand, hewn from the volcanic rock. Channels cut into the walls and floor guided molten lava from the inside of the mountain to the pool of magma outside, and in the intense heat Hootford removed his helmet, revealing an astonishingly handsome face.

At the end of the tunnel they found what appeared to be a large forge of Elven construction, decorated with symbols of fire and the burning sun. Beneath the forge was a contraption of some kind and Ruber recognized that it was designed to store an elemental core of some kind — probably that of a fire elemental. It was at this point that he also realized the cold crystal fragments he had in his satchel were those of an ice elemental, and — given time — it would be possible to “reincarnate” the elemental core.

However, the immediate problem was to obtain a fire elemental core. Ruber consulted his notes upon the subject and found that fire elementals were attracted not just to fire but to accumulations of combustible materials. His notebook recorded that a large cloud of flour could be enough to draw one’s attention. Between the three of them, they hatched a plan…

The noon sun beat down upon Rickard, sweat streaming down his cheeks from beneath his bird-beaked doctor’s mask — his only protection from the clouds of soporific pollen that now surrounded him. Dancing and twisting in a bizarre manner, both of his arms grasped large bunches of the fluffy-topped plant. He waved them through the air, casting showers of white dust in every direction.

From deep within the cave came the sonorous sounds of Hootford’s voice. His deep throat-singing echoed and resonated around the clearing. Rickard’s crazed dancing grew to a fever pitch as Ruber chanted arcane incantations into the air, and from the fringe of the jungle emerged two red impish creatures, beating their wings in the hot air.

“See, I told you! Look! It’s going to explode!” one screeched to the other. Rickard stopped his dancing as he ran from the area, and Ruber finished his chanting. He raised his arms, sparks fizzing from his fingertips (Elemental Sparks), and with a woosh the cloud of dust erupted into an immense fireball.

The two imps were driven to the brink of ecstasy by this display, their eyes seemingly bursting into flame. “LET’S FIGHT!” one screamed, the other shouting “ONE ON ONE, LET’S GO RIGHT NOW!”

Rickard began to step forward, but Ruber motioned him to stay still, and then raised his other hand. A powerful blast of water (Beckoned Deluge) jetted into the nearest imp, who screeched and collapsed in a damp pile on the ground. Rickard rushed up and slit the throat of the drowned imp, its body melting and fading into thin air. From the centre of its body a glowing elemental core fell to the soil.

The other imp shouted “Cheating! You’re cheating! You’ve killed him!” and, its enthusiasm for the fight immediately quenched, turned and sped off as fast as it could flap his wings. Ruber sprinted as fast as he could toward the edge of the clearing, casting another blast of water after the second imp and sending him crashing into a nearby tree.

Hootford now emerged from the cave at a full sprint, and upon reaching the edge of the clearing attempted a last-ditch throw with his dagger, which flew out of his hand as if launched from a crossbow and impaled the imp to the tree. With a thud, another elemental core landed up the jungle floor.

The party returned to the cave with their new goodies and planted them in the contraption below the forge. It began to glow internally with eerie flames of elemental fire.

Having confirmed that they can activate the forge, and so Anvil will be able to use it to construct items, they recollect the cores and begin the long journey to return to Hot Springs City, there to meet the ship and regroup with Jack and Captain Rand.

On the way back down the mountain they passed a large statue of a seven-headed dragon.3HS-17-01 It seemed to have an infestation of the insects that they had previously seen,4I rolled #4 on the Vyderac table! so they quickly passed it by. Rickard took them past the blue tower on the extinct volcano that he had noticed previously,5HS-15-02 and they found that it was positioned very high above the jungle floor on a rocky outcropping. If they wanted to scale the rock up to the tower they would need to return with equipment or magical means of transportation.

Finally, they returned to the Elven city and made a short detour to the Broken Quarter to stash some of their treasures in an old mud-brick tower. At the bottom of the central stairs they found Joni waiting for them. She used her horn to signal the ship and they returned to it upon the ship’s boat.

Safely back aboard the ship they reported back to Captain Rand. Rickard used one large chunk of the topaz they had collected to pay off his Martel Company debts for the next week.

They reported to Jack that they had located the forge. Joni recounted to the others that Rickard was a skilled healer and would be able to help them in future.

Captain Rand also indicated that the group he had mentioned last time they had seen him — the ones who had been collecting notes and mapping the island — had returned to the ship, and pointed out Zilbee, a small green goblin woman.

After a brief discussion about creatures and plants that they had found upon the island, Zilbee agreed to share with them the collection of notes that she and Matthias (a zoologist) had been working on: tentatively entitled A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island.

GM Resources

WFRP: Populations of the Reikland

In a fit of silliness inspired by the WFRP books, I attempted to catalogue the cities in the Reikland based upon the books. Now, I’m a fresh newcomer to both the system and the world, but long-time players will know well the inconsistencies that accrue over 35+ years of lore development and revision. The cities were first listed in the first edition (1ᴇ) book Death on the Reik (1987) — for the actual numbers, see the end of this post.

It is generally acknowledged that the numbers in the first edition of WFRP are too low, and later editions have revised them upwards. Towns and cities received a population bump moving from 1ᴇ to 2ᴇ (towns increasing by about 1.6× and the big cities of Altdorf & Nuln by 7×), while in 4ᴇ both were increased again (towns to 2.4× their 1ᴇ values, Altdorf to 66⅔×!), and villages also received a modest population increase from the 1ᴇ/2ᴇ values (on average 1.4×).

Some attempts at in-game explanations for the reason that the 1ᴇ numbers are so low are that either the ‘population’ number only counts “those who count” — landowners, artisans, merchants, etc — or that it describes the number of households rather than the number of people.

This solution has always, seemingly, been the official answer, though it has been under-emphasized. The 1ᴇ book Warhammer City (1987) — published after Death on the Reik — says:

Today, Middenheim is the second largest city in The Empire – after Altdorf. The resident population of Middenheim (according to the last census taken two years ago) is 13,224 […]. Of course, the census only includes the heads of tax-paying households, while the size of Middenheim’s constantly swelling army of vagrants, thieves and beggars can only be guessed at.

Warhammer City, p. 9

Compare also the 1ᴇ sourcebook Marienburg: Sold Down the River (1999), which reports 135,000 “heads of households” with the 2ᴇ book The WFRP Companion (2006), which reports a “population” of 135,000.

This explanation is also used officially in the 4ᴇ book Empire in Ruins Companion (2022), when discussing the town of Diesdorf:

The town has an official population of 150 but that only includes officers of the rank of captain and above, property-owners, and master craftsmen, of which many are blacksmith and armourers supporting the college. The true population stands nearer 1600.

Empire in Ruins Companion, p. 82

However, note that the figure of 150 is from the 2nd edition of the game; the 4ᴇ figure is 210!

In the 1ᴇ sourcebook Dwarfs: Stone and Steel (2002), a similar explanation is made (even though the figures for Dwarf populations are much higher on average than those given for Human):

Population figures for the Dwarfholds are based upon the number of able bodies that can fight if the need arises. This includes females, but excludes any Dwarf under 15 years of age.

Dwarfs: Stone and Steel, Appendix C: Gazetteer of the Dwarf Realms

But now, what should we do about all this, if we wish to figure the “actual populations” of these fantasy settlements? Let’s start with the village populations which were unmodified until 4ᴇ. A common solution in the past seems to have been to multiply the 1ᴇ populations by some number such as 10×. This seems to be too high for many of the villages — at least, going by the classic article “Medieval Demographics Made Easy” (1993–2018) by S. John Ross (see also the critique “Notes on Medieval Population Geography” (2016) by Lyman Stone, and the article “How Large were Medieval Peasant Families?” (2021) by Lucie Laumonier also has some good information, such as the fact that rural households should be larger on average). However, the setting of WFRP is in the early modern rather than the true medieval period, so we shouldn’t be too tied to the numbers listed.

MDME gives a “typical village” size as 50–300 people; if we treat the 1ᴇ village values as households and approximate 5 people per household then we end up with populations in the range 125–475 with an average of 287; the number is skewed toward the upper end of the MDME range, but that is probably good for villages that are important enough to be listed on the gazetteer, and again, we aren’t in the middle of the middle ages. If we want to work from the 4ᴇ figures, then 4 people per household gives very similar results for the most part, although some villages are already adjusted to be much higher, so they end up with 600/700 people.

The listed town and city values overall seem to be more realistic, and multiplying the 1ᴇ values by similar amounts as we multiplied the villages would push all into the ‘city’ or ‘big city’ range. I am inclined to accept directly the adjusted 4ᴇ figures which increase a few of the larger towns into the ‘city’ level, which seems reasonable if you compare the supposed facilities of the towns with the “support values” (i.e. required minimum population level) given in MDME. For example, in the 4ᴇ A Guide to Ubersreik (2018) it is stated that there are 3 licensed Doktors, requiring — according to MDME — a population of at least 5000; the population given in the Guide is 6000.1Note that this is lower than the number given in Death on the Reik Companion, as the Jungfreud loyalists have all left town, and others have surely left simply due to the upheaval. The population figure of 10,500 for Bögenhafen also seems more realistic to support the wide range of guilds that are listed in Enemy in Shadows.

As far as the cities go, a million people seems excessive for Altdorf; the Wikipedia article “List of largest European cities in history” gives useful points of comparison. Based upon vibes I feel like we’re looking at the late 16th century, at which point the largest cities in the core of Europe top out at around 200k people; none of the cities of the Holy Roman Empire (if we wish to attempt to draw cultural parallels) break 200k until the late 18th century. The largest city in the real world during this period would be Constantinpole at around 700k people.

If we look at other large cities that have (so far) been released for WFRP fourth edition we see that Middenheim has around “40,000 souls” (3× the 1ᴇ figure, 2⅔× the 2ᴇ figure), so perhaps we could position a more ‘realistic’ Altdorf around 300k.

So overall, to calculate some approximation to ‘actual population’ for 4ᴇ I would: increase the size of the villages (5×1ᴇ or 4×4ᴇ), keep the towns the same, and reduce the size of Altdorf.

The Numbers

And now the numbers themselves. The sources listed are:

  • 1ᴇ: Death on the Reik (1987)
    • Year 2512 IC.
  • 2ᴇ: Sigmar’s Heirs (2005)
    • Year 2522 IC, after the Storm of Chaos.
  • MA: Mad Alfred’s Maps & Gazetteers (2012–2020)
    • Year 2515 IC, post-The Enemy Within campaign.
    • Note that I have removed any entries that only appear in these gazetteers and not in previous ones.
  • 4ᴇ: Death on the Reik Companion (2020)
    • Year 2512 IC.
    • Note that this list is strictly restricted to the Reikland area and so doesn’t include Grissenwald, even though it is part of the adventure.
    • An egregious error is that the town of Stimmigen and the village of Lachenbad were both accidentally deleted from the list and the rest of its villages are included under the Kemperbad entry.
Name 1ᴇ 2ᴇ MA 4ᴇ
ALTDORF 15000 105000 105000 1000000
Autler 81 81 81 124
Blutroch 0 0 0 0
Braunwurt 52 52 52 75
Bundesmarkt 77 77 77 105
Dorchen 75 75 75 105
Frederheim 75 75 116
Furtild 53 53 53 90
Geldrecht 49 49 49 56
Gluckshalt 72 72 72 87
Grossbad 69 69 69 83
Hartsklein 65 65 65 78
Heiligen 58 58 58 70
Hochloff 81 81 81 98
Kaldach 52 52 52 63
Rechtlich 42 42 42 51
Rottefach 88 88 88 105
Schlafebild 38 38 38 46
Teufelfeuer 0 45 0 55
Walfen 52 152 152 181
AUERSWALD 2500 5000 5000 5000
Dresschler 63 63 63 76
Gladisch 41 41 41 50
Hahnbrandt (mine) 200 200 250
Koch 95 95 95 115
Sprinthof 73 73 73 87
Steche 61 61 61 75
BÖGENHAFEN 4500 5000 9000 10500
Ardlich 72 72 72 155
Castle Grauenburg 200 200 200 350
Finsterbad 82 82 82 140
Grubevon 57 57 57 90
Herzhald 73 73 73 140
CASTLE REIKGUARD 300 300 300 300
CARROBURG 8000 12000 8000
Anseldorf 56 56 56
Barenfähre 80 80
Dunkelbild 67 67 67
Punzen 57 57 57
Schattenlas 54 54 54
Senden 45 45
Weidemarkt 61 61 61
DELBERZ 2000 4500 2000
Mittelmund 35 35 35
Schwarzmarkt 61 61 61
Turmgever 53 53 53
DUNKELBURG 3000 6000 6000 8900
Barfsheim 52 52 52 77
Gemusenbad 31 31 31 56
Harke 25 25 25 37
Ruhfurt 64 64 64 90
Schattental 72 72 72 86
Steindorf 47 47 47 70
DIESDORF 150 150 210
EILHART 2500 2500 3200
GRUNBURG 1200 2400 2400 2900
Aussen 43 43 43 95
Hornlach 74 74 74 120
Kleindorf 35 35 35 40
Silberwurt 85 85 85 110
Wörlitz 88 88 105
KEMPERBAD 3750 7500 7500 9600
Berghof 74 74 74 85
Brandenburg 87 87 87 95
Jungbach 68 68 68 105
Ostwald 70 70 70 88
Stockhausen 95 95 95 118
HELMGART 2200 2200
HOLTHUSEN 3500 3500
NULN 12000 85000 85000
Ambosstein 80 80 80
Armedorf 52 52 52
Arschel 64 64 64
Biberdorf 46 46 46
Bleichdorf 32 32 32
Brandtstadt 52 52 52
Braundorf 62 62 62
Eschedorf 47 47 47
Furtzhausen 74 74 74
Königsdorf 52 52 52
Kotzenheim 61 61 61
Krauthof 42 42 42
Mattersheim 37 37 37
Segeldorf 48 48 48
Wahnfurt 32 32 32
Winkelhausen 62 62 62
Wurstheim 78 78 78
Zecher 32 32 32
SCHOPPENDORF 2500 84 2500
Brasthof 37
Esselfurt 48
Langwiese 0
Priestlicheim 42
Ripdorf 32
Zeder 40
STIMMIGEN 1750 1750 1750 MISSING
Lachenbad 58 58 MISSING
Merretheim 48 48 48 67
Misthausen 32 32 32 43
Naffdorf 52 52 52 75
Pfeiffer 42 42 42 60
UBERSREIK 3500 3500 3500 7500
Buchdorf 58 58 58 158
Flussberg 62 62 62 95
Geissbach 46 46 46 66
Halheim 30 30 30 49
Hugeldal (mine) 250 250 316
Messingen 80 8 80 111
Wurfel 52 52 52 75
WEISSBRUCK 72 272 272 359
Delfgruber (mine) 650 650
WITTGENDORF 120 120 150

Common Knowledge

Common Knowledge: Competent Characters

This is the first in a series entitled “Common Knowledge” that I’d like to write, identifying common advice and themes that appear repeatedly across different games.1The intent is that the assemblage becomes something more than a series of quotes, as that would be a cheap trick!

The question to be answered in this first post: what are ways to make characters feel like they are good at what they do, as well as individuating them from other characters?

Of course, there are games where the driving theme is the incompetence of the player characters (Goblin Quest (2015), for one), or the inability of the characters to succeed in the face of an unfair world, but in the vast majority of TTRPGs, characters are expected to be at least as competent as a standard member of their profession, if not more.

Enabling Success

One method is to permit characters to simply do what they are good at, instead of making them perform checks where they may fail (even if these checks are supposedly ‘easy’). Kevin Crawford’s WWNWWN Worlds Without Number (2021), a ruleset (and more) by Kevin Crawford has some on-point advice (my emphasis):

The GM calls for skill checks, but they should only be called for challenges that fall outside the PC’s background and common experience. A PC with the background of a sailor should not be rolling skill checks to dock a ship or navigate to a commonly-known destination. As a general rule of thumb, if failure at a particular task would make the PC seem notably incompetent at their role in life, then they shouldn’t have to roll a skill check for it. In addition, if failure or success at a check really doesn’t matter in the game, if it won’t produce some interesting result either way, then a check shouldn’t be made.

Even concept-related feats might require a skill check, however, if the situation is especially bad or the circumstances particularly hostile. The sailor might have to make a Sail skill check to dock a ship if they attempt it in the middle of a gale wind, and a noble might have to make a Connect skill check to find shelter with an aristocratic relation if they’re currently wanted by the Witch-King’s inquisitors.

Worlds Without Number (p. 41, “When to call for a check”), Kevin Crawford

The question of “When to call for a check” is also a subject to be covered in a future instalment.

Mechanics for Broad Competence

One way to provide mechanical support for competence (above and beyond “let them do it”), and to also play into a character’s history, is the method employed by aspect-style systems. This terminology is taken from the Fate series of systems, and denotes systems where characters have free-form labels attached to them which describe their background, personality, abilities, etc. The idea possibly first comes from Theatrix (1995), where free-form traits are called Descriptors.

As the exemplar, in Fate Core (2013), characters have several undifferentiated Aspects attached to them. Some examples taken from the Fate SRD are the background “Cybernetic Street Thief”, the feature “Sharp Eyed Veteran”, or the personality trait “Sucker for a Pretty Face”. When a test needs to be made, invoking an appropriate Aspect allows you to add +2 to a roll2your own, someone you’re helping, or in opposition to another roll or to re-roll a check. (A notable feature of Aspects is that they are double-edged: a ‘good’ Aspect — according to the SRD — should be able to be used by the GM against the player, in certain situations.)

The difference between this and skill-based systems is that the bonus can be applied to any action that would be related to the aspect in play, and not just actions that would fall under one category.

A similar but more liberal mechanic is used in The One Ring (2011), where being able to apply an appropriate character Trait or Virtue either turns a check into an automatic success or permits a check where it would not normally be allowed.

Another approach is that taken by 13th Age (2013) which explicitly codifies bonuses via Backgrounds: at creation, characters receive a number of Background Points3Usually 8. which can be spread amongst any number of free-from Backgrounds. These then provide a +x modifier (equivalent to the number of points assigned) to any rolls where that Background could apply.

These aspect-based methods can easily be used as inspiration or adapted to other rulesets: for example, if we wanted to use a similar rule in D&D (2014) we could lift the mechanic from The One Ring and rule that a character’s Background may allow either an automatic success or Advantage on a check. Alternately we could allow characters to distribute Background Points like in 13th Age for straight +x bonuses.

Mitigating Failure

Blades in the Dark (2017) has advice for the converse situation: what happens when a character fails at something they should have suceeded at?

When a PC rolls a 1-3, things go badly, but it’s because the circumstances are dangerous or troublesome—not because the character is a buffoon. Even a PC with zero rating in an action isn’t a bumbling fool. Here’s a trick for this: start your description of the failure with a cool move by the PC, followed by “but,” and then the element in the situation that made things so challenging. “You aim a fierce right hook at his chin, but he’s quicker than he looked! He ducks under the blow and wrestles you up against the wall.”

On failure, talk about what went wrong. “Ah, maybe you missed something while you’re climbing through the jeweler’s broken window?” “Yeah, they probably have tripwires or something huh?” “Yep! You feel the wire snap against your arm.” You can also lean on features the player has already portrayed about the character. How are their vice or traumas a problem? What is it about their heritage or background that gives them trouble or gets in the way?

Blades in the Dark (p. 197, “Don’t make the PCs look incompetent”), John Harper

Earlier advice along these lines comes from Sorcerer & Sword (2001), a supplement for the Sorcerer game (also 2001):

The dice system in Sorcerer is intended to resolve conflicts, not tasks. This means that a failed roll does not have to be interpreted in-game as a “whiffed” attempt. The task being attempted by the character may actually be successful, but the outcome of that task – based on what was at stake in the larger, story sense – will be disadvantageous, either immediately or in the future.

[examples elided]

Since protagonists in the sword-and-sorcery genre are rarely foolish or inept, the classic role-playing “miss” result has little place in their adventures. The GM and players are urged to interpret failed rolls in ways that do not reflect badly on the characters’ abilities.

Sorcerer & Sword (p. 67, “Failed rolls”), Ron Edwards
Session Reports

Mothership: The Haunting of Ypsilon-14

A session report, from one of my talented players.

With hooded eyelids and bleary eyes, Sven Beepo 137 – a normal human, and definitely not an android – looked at the other two people occupying the small shuttle with him. He was still shrugging off the three-night continuous underground rave that had finally earned him enough workplace demerits to be sent off-world, but he made an effort to study these two: you never knew who was an android, posing as a normal, fleshy, human person.

One was a hefty man, with the large hands and muscled arms and shoulders of a worker, and the vacant smile of an idiot. He seemed to be doing some sort of calculation using his fingers, and Sven guessed it had to do with credits, either owed or owing. His fingers looked to have been broken in the past, as if by a loan shark or someone in a similar line of business. Probably credits owed then.

The other man had the scarred features of a veteran soldier, and wore a scowl on his face. Even when the shuttle had bucked and bounced as it left the atmosphere, and now as it encountered the meagre gravity well of Ypsilon 14, the man had not appeared worried in the slightest. “Definitely a military man,” Sven thought, “or a marine biologist perhaps.1One of the players misunderstood what a “marine” was and was roleplaying under the impression that he had a background in dolphins. Either way, both of them are androids.” He was certain.

The shuttle doors swung open and the three men – or one human flesh man and two insidious metal automatons – took their first steps into the cramped interiors of Ypsilon 14. Sven surveyed his new surroundings as they were greeted by an android who had taken the appearance of a human female with a thick accent that had its origins somewhere east of the Urals back on Earth. She introduced herself as Sonya. “More like S0ny4, you android fuck,” Sven thought to himself, chuckling internally at his very hilarious, very human joke.

Sonya explained the layout of the facilities on Ypsilon 14, Sven’s mind wandering until she informed the new arrivals that they would unfortunately be unable to leave the asteroid in the near future. His ears pricked up as she said something about the chief engineer, an android named Mike, going missing very recently, and that company policy stated that all shuttles were locked down until all crew were accounted for.

Sven studied the large workspace they were in as the three androids pretended to have a human conversation. The large muscle-bound one had introduced himself as Brogan, a teamster with a gambling problem. The other one had indeed been revealed to be a veteran marine, named Darwin.

Being the busy, liquid and bone-filled human that he was, Sven grew impatient with the robots; he realised that if they were to make their delivery on time, Mike would have to be found.

“These are Mike’s quarters”, Sonya said as she opened the door to a tiny room, “feel free to look around.” It was compact, only just managing to fit in a bed and some drawers with very little floor space, but it was clean; too clean. Sonya told them something that might have been important, about Mike making a discovery of some sort down in the mines, and someone named Dr Giovanni coming to Ypsilon 14 to investigate and verify said discovery, but Sven, briefly in the thrall of a flashback related to a heavy lysergic acid diethylamide session the previous week, only half heard her. Before he could enquire any further, Sonya excused herself, claiming that she had work to do, but Sven knew she was probably just going to power down somewhere and recharge her batteries, as she pondered how best to exterminate the entire human race. “No matter,” Sven said to himself, “wherever there are steel-boned, computer-brained scum like that seeking to conquer mankind, there will be wet-blooded, sweaty, bacteria riddled baseline human heroes like myself to stand in their way.”

There were others in the different crew cabins around them, and Sven glowered suspiciously as a tall man – probably an android – walked past them in the direction of the washrooms. He watched the man until he disappeared through a door, then Sven went in to Mike’s quarters. Brogan and Darwin were searching the small room rigorously, but it was clear there was nothing to be found. The other two were growing on Sven; they had approached the issue of the missing chief engineer with intent and an almost human-like vigor. For androids, they weren’t half bad.

Suddenly, a thought hit Sven: the roof was a suspended ceiling, made up of cheap tiles. He stood on the bed and lifted one, peering into the open space. At first glance it appeared empty, only an air duct and wires running through, but then he noticed two shapes in the gloom. Reaching out to grab them, he saw that one was a firearm – a revolver, with a small amount of ammunition – and the other was a plastic spray bottle. Replacing the tile and stepping down, Sven showed his finds to his two android friends. “For you, soldier man”, he said, holding out the pistol to Darwin. The marine accepted the weapon with a nod. “Odd,” said the soldier, “everything has been cleared out of here, except for this? That suggests someone other than Mike stripped the room – if he’d done it himself, he definitely would’ve taken his weapon.” “Good point,” said Brogan, stepping forward, “now let’s go check out those washrooms, I gotta drop a deuce.”

They pushed open the door to the washrooms and entered. “Where is the tall man?” Sven asked. Darwin looked at him like he was a dolphin, ready for slaughtering, Brogan just ignored him and went straight to a stall, where he began loudly voiding his bowels.

“Hmmm, a clever trick, for an android: simulated organic processes,” Sven Beepo 137 thought. Then the smell hit him. “Very well simulated.” “Woo! Somebody light a match!” Brogan hollered. Sven stopped for a moment as a thought hit him: he himself had never once gone to the toilet in his entire life. Peculiar. Nothing to do with his being an android of course, because he wasn’t an android. No, it probably had more to do with the fact that he had never actually eaten anything. Yes, that was it.

Sven’s very brief identity confusion was interrupted by Darwin, who started kicking open the doors of the toilet stalls and opening the cisterns to peer inside. “Nothing.” He concluded.

Brogan finished up, and joined Sven and Darwin as they searched the room. There was a broken shower, some graffiti reading “Dana 4 Kantaro”, and a noisy ventilation shaft that was heroically struggling to deal with the smell that Brogan had created. The stench was clearly organic in nature, and Sven had to very reluctantly admit to himself that perhaps the big man wasn’t entirely an android after all. But then maybe Darwin wasn’t an android either? But then maybe that meant that he, Sven, was in fact…

Suddenly, the door to the washroom swung open, and a human female-shaped android came in. She looked at the three and politely asked, “who the fuck are you?” Sven, too busy internalizing his fight against a potential identity crisis, didn’t pay any attention, but one of the other two told them who they were, and asked about Mike, and the graffiti. Sven bottled up the confusion he was battling, ruthlessly beating his self-doubt into submission, like Darwin amongst a pod of dolphins, and tuned in to the conversation.

“It says Dana 4 Kantaro? God damn it, have those fuckers been tagging bullshit again. I’m Dana.” The woman looked angry. “You are in love with Kantaro?” Sven asked. “Fuck no, someone just thinks they’re funny”, the woman retorted, clearly edging towards beyond-pissed-off, “now can you guys fuck off. I’m trying to have a shower here, and I don’t want you creeps watching.” The three men, or two androids and one man, or two men and one android, or – oh God, I hope not – three androids, started to leave, before Sven stopped and asked the volatile woman, “have you seen the tall man?” “Who, Jerome?” She responded in an exasperated voice. “He’s probably in his quarters, and if he’s not there, he’ll be in the mess. Now fuck off!”

The quarters had been a dead end, Sven had barged into Tall Jerome’s room, but the android wasn’t there. Darwin, Brogan and Sven had chatted with a relaxed android called Ashraf, who pointed them in the direction of the mess hall, hinting that he wanted privacy, so the three new arrivals had headed there.

The mess hall wasn’t busy, but by Ypsilon 14 standards, it was almost at capacity, with two women, a man, and a cat sitting down eating. The male, it turned out, was Kantaro, and he seemed just as pissed off at everything as his alleged lover, Dana. He quickly and rudely excused himself, barging into Sven as he left. “That’s one angry android.” Sven thought. Then he and his friends turned their attention to the other two, who introduced themselves as Morgan and Ri. Morgan had in her possession a small, feline-shaped android named Prince.

Darwin and Brogan, who were proving to be surprisingly reliable and effective investigators – and almost certainly trustworthy humans, Sven had decided – grilled the two women on Mike. The chief engineer had almost certainly discovered something of worth in the mines, and he had been excited about it. The arrival of Dr Giovanni had exacerbated things, and by all accounts, Mike had been acting “strange”. “Maybe he’d been taking drugs?” Someone suggested, and Sven’s head whipped around. “Drugs?” He asked, a sudden deep yearning growing in the pit of his human stomach, filling him with excitement and an all-encompassing desire. “What have you got? Jimjam? Gravity Sunrise? Got any Digital Flow? What about Turbocrash?” It was the smaller female android, named Ri, who looked up at him and answered, “Turbocrash? You’re after some Turbocrash? I can hook you up, come back to my quarters.”

As they had left the mess hall, the cat, Prince had looked at Sven and the others with absolute contempt, the sort of contempt only an android could muster for a human, Sven thought. Or, come to think of it, the sort of contempt that a cat could muster for anyone at all. Maybe he was being too quick to label everyone androids? No, nonsense! Paranoia, suspicion, and finger pointing were an essential ingredient in the human condition, and Sven was as human as they come; he was sure of it, deep in his pulsing, metal heart.

Ri led them to her quarters, where she began speaking in hushed tones. “Okay, who wants the turbocrash? Just you?” She gestured towards Sven. Sven nodded enthusiastically and reached out his hand like an impatient child. Ri handed him a small vial of a vibrant yellow powder as Brogan and Darwin looked on, then she opened a second one. “Might take a little bump now, just to take the edge off.” She tapped some of the powder out onto the back of one of her hands, and quickly snorted it. As soon as she had, she launched her head back to look up at the three men, her pupils rapidly expanding until it looked like she had no irises at all. “Holy shit, that’s the stuff! Hey, can you guys head off now? I’m just gonna chill here.” Sven looked greedily at his own vial, but then pocketed it, and followed Brogan and Darwin out the door.

As the three men stood in the hallway, the sound of what seemed like furious masturbation reached their ears from Kantaro’s room. Again, Sven was confronted by what he had to assume was a deeply organic action being carried out by someone he was certain had been an android. “I will address this later”, he muttered to himself, then, out loud to the other two, he said, “I would like to find Tall Jerome.” “Why do you want to find that guy so bad?” Asked Brogan, looking at Sven in confusion. Sven turned to the big man and answered, “I am unsure, but I’m certain that he has something to do with the disappearance of Mike. We have a mystery at hand, but it can be solved, we just have to find Tall Jerome to seal the deal.” Sven noted that when he said the word “seal”, Darwin, who had been silently scanning the hallway, tensed up, and got a far-away look in his eyes. “Peculiar”, he thought to himself, filing the information away for later analysis.

“Well, he’s not in his room, he’s not in the mess hall, and he wasn’t in the washroom,” Darwin said, shaking himself out of whatever brief trance he had been in, “so maybe we should go and see that Sonya lady again.” It was a good idea, so the three men started heading back to the work space where Sonya’s desk was located. As they walked, Sven absent-mindedly fingered the vial of Turbocrash in his pocket, and a smile spread across his face as his pulse quickened. He’d had some crazy nights on this stuff, and he was looking forward to having another one soon. Then the smile vanished as he thought of the android they were about to go and talk to. “Sonya,” Sven whispered to himself, “that woman is definitely an evil machine, I’m one hundred percent certain of it. If we ripped that robot bitch open, there wouldn’t be a single human organ in there.”

Sonya was tapping away on her console as Darwin led them into the work space. She looked up at them with a cocked eyebrow and said, “So, how are you getting on?” “Have you seen Tall Jerome?” asked Sven, cutting straight to the chase. Sonya looked slightly confused as she responded, “I’m sure he’s around, in his quarters or the mess hall?” “No,” Sven told her, “he’s not in his room, in the mess hall, or in the wash room. Has he come past her, perhaps going into the mine?” A look of concern replaced the confusion on Sonya’s face, and Sven was impressed by the engineering that had gone into this android that she could mimic human expressions so deftly; that only made them even more dangerous… “No-one has come past here at all,” Sonya told them, the slightest edge of panic sneaking into her words, “you’re telling me we’re missing another crew member?” She packed up her console and exited the small booth she worked in. “Come, we need to gather everyone together.”

As the group made their way to the crew quarters area of Ypsilon 14, Sven was filled with the smugness that only a human – or a complex, highly-programmed android that wholly believed they were human – could feel. He had been right about Tall Jerome, he was sure of it. Somehow, the lanky android had been the key to this. Now, they would solve the missing Mike mystery, get what they came for, and be on their way. Then, he could take a dose of the Turbocrash in his pocket, and maybe see if he could drag Brogan and Darwin along to a rave somewhere; he’d heard that there was a perpetual dance party in an old nitrogen processing plant on Triton that had been going for three decades now, and he’d always wanted to check it out. Soon enough, he thought. It was all going to be plain sailing from here! As long as this Sonya robot lady didn’t try anything funny. Sven’s hand drifted to the stun-baton that hung from his hip as he scowled at the back of her undoubtedly metal head.

Sonya accessed an intercom in the hallway outside the crew quarters and called everyone to her. Doors started opening, and the inhabitants of Ypsilon 14 made their way to the administrator, some looking groggy, some looking confused, and, in Ri’s case, some looking like they’d just drank 15 caff-stim beverages and were in the middle of receiving a mild but ongoing electric shock. “Fuck yes,” Sven chuckled to himself, “Turbocrash was one hell of a drug.” Only Morgan, Ri, Dana, and Ashraf converged on Sonya and the three self-appointed investigators, so Sonya repeated the call, to no avail. “Where’s Kantaro?” mused Brogan, as he pushed open the door that they had seen the man disappear into earlier.

Kantaro’s room was covered in a sticky goo, and at first Sven drew back in disgust, remembering the sounds of self-pleasure that had originated from here a short time ago, but then curiosity overwhelmed him, and he followed Darwin and Brogan in. There was nothing amiss in the room at all, if you ignored the coating of yellowish slime that was everywhere, and the complete absence of Kantaro. “What the fuck…?” began Darwin, before he was interrupted by a muffled cry and loud screams from the hallway behind them.

The three dashed out of the small room to see Sonya being pulled into the ventilation system that ran along the ceiling, by some unseen force. Sven acted quickly and darted forward to grab her leg, trying to pull the android back down – she wouldn’t escape human justice that easy! Whatever had the other end of Sonya was much stronger than he was, so he felt relief when Darwin appeared next to him, grabbing her other leg. Even with the old soldier’s help, they were losing this game of human tug-of-war, so Sven turned his head towards Brogan, who was standing there scratching his head. “Hey! Big man! We need your help!” Brogan looked at Sven, shrugged, and came over to lend his strength. With the three of them pulling, Sven could feel them starting to make some gains, so he shouted, “On three! One! Two! Three!”

With a wet ripping sound, like a soggy newspaper being torn in two, Sonya opened up like an organic Christmas cracker. Her upper half disappeared into the vent, and Sven, Darwin, and Brogan fell back onto the floor, still holding the bottom part of the administrator. Blood that had been pressurized within her body only seconds before rained down on the three men, coating them in gore. Sven kicked off the small intestines that had looped around his legs, holding up his hands to look at the red fluid that now covered them. “Peculiar.” He said aloud, as Morgan, Ri, Ashraf, and Dana screamed, “Perhaps she wasn’t an android after all.”

Darwin, like the soldier he was, had pulled out his revolver and clambered straight into the blood-slick ventilation shaft, even before the screaming had stopped, but he’d returned a few minutes later, red all over, saying he’d run into a dead end. That whole time, Sven had stood there, perfectly still, staring at the bright crimson ichor that covered him. “She…what? Human? Not…but…” he had stammered, as confusion washed over him, coating him just as completely as Sonya’s blood had. She was an android, he knew she was an android. Definitely. But she wasn’t an android, that much was clear. His sensors were all off, his programming needed patching. Wait, what? No! He meant his senses were all off, right? What was he thinking? Maybe now was a good time for that Turbocrash after all, he had thought, just to set things straight, clear his mind, help him focus. He wasn’t a god damn android, he was a skeleton, encased in flesh, which was filled with blood, organs, and a fucking human soul! “Snap out of it, Sven Beepo 137!” he had admonished himself, pushing the vial of Turbocrash deeper into his pocket, just as Darwin had dropped back down from the vent. “We gotta get back to the shuttle,” the grizzled veteran had growled, “the shit’s hitting the fan, and we don’t wanna be here for the clean up.”

So, the survivors ran for the work space, where the shaft down to the mines yawned open like the maw of a feeding Saturnian gas whale. Darwin went straight to Sonya’s terminal while Dana watched over his shoulder. Ashraf cradled Ri, who was still clearly very much in the clutches of a Turbocrash high that had no doubt been sent somewhat off the rails by the brutal spectacle of her boss being torn apart like pulled pork. Morgan was pacing in circles, rambling to herself about escape, while Prince, the cat-shaped android, watched on, also appearing unsettled. Sven tried to distract himself, postponing the burgeoning identity crisis that was building in his head by talking to Brogan. “Our shuttle is still there, and that Dr Giovanni has one here too. I wonder where he is?” “I dunno,” said the massive teamster, “but we gotta get on that shuttle and get the hell out of here.” Sven disagreed, saying, “No, we should go down into the mines. We can still solve this mystery.” He didn’t want to spend any time alone in the quiet of a space shuttle. Too much time for introspection; he had to stay busy. “We can still find Mike, and whatever he discovered down there.” Sven could see that Brogan had no desire to stay, so he appealed to the big man’s apparent gambling habit. “I bet you six credits that we find Mike down there.” Brogan’s eyes lit up. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ll take that bet!” Sven could almost see the gears turning in the other man’s head – figuratively, of course, by now he was fairly sure that Brogan was a baseline human – as he looked excitedly towards the mine shaft. “And you know what, whatever he found is probably still down there. We could make a lot of money off whatever it is!” Dana, who had overheard the conversation chimed in, “I’ll come with you. I owe some payback to whatever it is that took Kantaro.” At that, Morgan stopped pacing and stared at them in alarm, before taking a deep breath and yelling, “Are you crazy? You’re crazy! We have to get out of here! GET THAT DOOR OPEN, WE HAVE TO LEAVE!”

Suddenly, the cat started to hiss in the direction of the mine shaft, as it backed away in fear. Morgan kept rambling and shouting, but the others had mostly stopped listening to her, instead watching Prince. Sven turned toward the open mouth of the mine, but there was nothing there; he turned back to look at Prince just in time to see Morgan let out a sudden choke, as a red line formed across her neck. Her eyes went wide, then blood geysered out of her mouth as the red line on her throat opened up like a zipper on a pencil case. Then she was jerked forwards, snatched off her feet by something Sven could not see. He stared as her body was pulled, causing her head to loll back on the ruined neck like a gruesome pez dispenser. “Hmm. Also not an android.” Sven said, pulling the stun baton off his belt and charging forwards towards the apparently invisible thing that had slaughtered Morgan.

Sven Beepo 137 dashed forwards, swinging the charged stun baton towards the seemingly open space in front of Morgan’s convulsing body. He had no idea if whatever was hunting them was still there, but it felt better to take action rather than to cower in fear. Not that Sven had ever felt fear. He spent a fraction of a second reflecting on the fact that he had never actually felt any strong human emotion, ever. Peculiar. He filed that particular piece of intelligence away and focused on the matter at hand: neutralising the threat posed by the aggressive, invisible, and unknown creature that was somewhere in his immediate vicinity.

He got lucky. The stun baton halted in mid-air as it struck something in mid swing, and Sven depressed the button that would release the weapon’s charge. More than 50000 volts arced out from the electrodes, dancing forks of lightning spreading across the invisible surface of the creature, which let out a howl of pain. “Welcome to the danger zone, asshole!” Sven shouted. Humans always had the best lines, and that one was a doozy. Another tick in the I’m-definitely-not-an-android column, he thought. He reached back to swing again, when he suddenly felt a sharp pain raking across his chest; the monster, whatever it was, was fighting back.

Sven dropped the stun baton and clutched his hands to his chest. Pain. Another trademark of organic biology; another tick in the human column. He looked down at the wounds, his skin shredded in long slashes, revealing the metallic frame, wiring, and flashing LEDs beneath. Peculiar. “Yep, definitely human.”

All of a sudden, Sven found himself transported from a world of pain, into a world of very loud noises. And pain. Six detonations rang in his ears as bullets hurtled just past his head and impacted into the invisible creature. It howled in distress once more, then it seemed to flee down the mine shaft, it’s cries vanishing into the darkness. Sven covered up his damaged chest with his jacket, then turned slowly to see Darwin, his revolver still raised and smoking after he had discharged the six rounds. “You got some good dance moves, amigo,” he snarled at Sven, lowering the gun as he pulled some sunglasses out of his front pocket and slipped them on, “but I just had to cut in.”

Darwin was back at Sonya’s terminal before Sven knew it, tapping away on the screen. “We gotta get that door open,” he muttered, “but in the mean time I’ll try to hail the pilot.” Dana nodded and pointed to a spot on the wall where life support suits and a mining laser cutter was mounted. “If you can’t hack into the control system to open the door, I think we can use that to get the door open.” Without looking away from the screen, Darwin gave her a thumbs up.

Sven walked over to where Ashraf was comforting an almost catatonic Ri. “The turbocrash should be burned out soon, the high cannot last much longer”, he told the other man. He noticed Ashraf was looking down at his ruined chest, and he pulled his jacket closed once more and said, “I’m not an android. You’re an android.” Got him good.

Suddenly, the speaker at Sonya’s terminal started crackling, and Sven heard the pilot’s voice, tinny and distorted as it asked “What the hell’s going on out there?” Darwin paused for a second before answering, “there’s something here, it’s hunting us. It’s already killed a lot of people; as far as we know, there are only six of us left. We have to get the hell out of here.” “Well, we’re not meant to leave without everyone accounted for, but if it’s that bad, you lot should get in here. Can you get the door open? It looks like it’s sealed.” The pilot responded. Sven noticed Darwin twitch slightly at the word “sealed”, but the soldier nodded to Dana, who was standing by with the laser cutter. She lowered a protective visor over her face and thumbed the ignition, bathing the entire work space in a red glow like a miniature red dwarf. “We’re about to cut it open.” “Holy shit! Okay, but be careful not to hit my shuttle!” Yelped the pilot. Without another word, Dana got to work.

Sven approached Brogan and addressed the massive worker. “So, I guess we have to abandon the foray into the mines?” He asked. Brogan turned to him and laughed, “If you want,” he answered, “but that means I win the bet, I still want to go down there! Plus, I’ve got a 50 credit bet that we find the cat down there, and that the cat did all this.” He pointed to the lifeless corpse of Morgan. Sven was confused at this; he replayed the recordings of the last 10 minutes in his memory banks, but could find no mention of the wager that Brogan was referring to. “Who do you have that bet with?” He asked, cocking his head to one side in confusion. “With you guys!” Brogan responded with a chuckle. “I never made that bet. None of us made that bet.” Sven said slowly. Brogan, still laughing to himself, just walked off, “50 credits, man. I’m gonna be rich.” Sven stared at him and shook his head. The big man was great to have around in a fight, but he definitely wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

Darwin had been working away at the terminal for a few minutes when he suddenly sat back and yelled, “Yes! I’ve hacked the doors, I can open them now!” At exactly the same time, Dana powered down the laser cutter and called out, “Alright, we’re through.” Darwin looked a little disappointed, but nodded and said, “okay everyone, that’s us. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Dana dropped the cutter and climbed through the hole she had made, as Ashraf slowly helped Ri towards the exit. Sven realised that they were going to make it out of this deathtrap after all. His hand went to his pocket, feeling for the vial of Turbocrash. It’d probably be best to take a hit before he got on the shuttle. Thinking too much could be bad for him right now, given the threatening identity crisis that was waiting for him in his own head. He turned to leave when all of a sudden Ashraf let out a scream of pain. Sven hung his head in disappointment, then slowly swivelled on the spot to face back towards Ashraf, Ri, and the mine shaft. Ashraf’s leg was severed at the foot, and blood was gushing out: the monster was back.

There was no hesitation this time; Sven reached into his pocket and pulled out the vial of Turbocrash. He popped the lid off with his thumb, put the vial to his nose, and snorted like his life depended on it. It probably did. Turbocrash really was one hell of a drug. First, the imbiber was treated to a rapid-fire reliving of a few of their most exciting experiences, maybe four or five of them, all crammed into the space of a half a second. Next, all the concentrated excitement and exhilaration – along with plenty of other emotions – washed over the user, supercharging them with adrenaline. That was what Sven was after. Although, Sven didn’t seem to react like other people who took the drug; whenever he had used it, the memories he relived weren’t really memories, they were elaborate fabrications. They had to be: no human could do the things he saw.

There was a blinding FLASH! Then Sven was in the open vacuum of space, unprotected by a space suit, holding a light-sail and standing on a molecule-thin spaceboard, surfing the solar winds. FLASH! He was a member of a civilian militia on Ganymede during the Jovian Schism, moving through a quiet commercial strip, when all of a sudden he and the rest of his patrol was engulfed by an exploding IED, jury-rigged out of a miniaturized plasma core. FLASH! He was in a massive cage, facing off against an android in a robot versus robot deathmatch; as a baying crowd watched on, he narrowly dodged a high kick from the android, then responded by surging forwards to tackle his opponent. FLASH! He was waking up in some sort of lab, apparently having suffered catastrophic damage – the skin on his hands was torn clean away, a metal frame showing underneath, and his left leg was severed just below the knee, with sparking wires sticking out – and a man in lab coat approached him, saying, “oh, Sven, you’ve rebooted! We thought your core processor may have been corrupted. Well, just lie back and we’ll get this memory wipe underway.” FLASH! Him charging towards an invisible monster on Ypsilon 14, Ashraf lying on the ground just in front of him, screaming. Sven felt his energy levels going through the roof, and time seemed to slow down slightly, as he swung the stun-baton once more.

He missed the creature this time, and he let out a loud curse. “Fucking invisible space monster! This is bullshit!” he yelled, as he swung again, with the same result. He looked back to Darwin, who was drawing his revolver, and Brogan, who had picked up the cutting laser and was advancing forward with a grim look on his face. “Where the hell is it? We can’t see it, but I bet it can see us! This thing probably smells blood, and we’re covered in the stuff!” Like the proverbial light bulb going off, Sven was hit with a flash of inspiration. He darted forward to Ashraf and grabbed the injured man’s leg, which was launching arterial spray across the floor. As Ashraf screamed, Sven pointed his leg stump towards where he thought the beast was, sending blood gushing out like a fire hose. Success! The blood landed on the thing, painting a horrific picture of a round maw filled with needle-like teeth, and surrounded by reaching tentacles. That was all Darwin and Brogan needed: they charged towards the monstrosity.

Darwin’s revolver barked twice, sending his last two bullets at the now somewhat visible creature, but it was Brogan who did the real damage. The big man hoisted the laser cutter, cable-like muscles rippling in his arms and shoulders, and a grin forming on his face. He turned the dial on the cutter to maximum, pointed it at the monster, which was still writhing in pain from the hits it took from Darwin, and called out to it. “Hey! Space thing! Want to make a wager? I reckon I’m gonna send you to space hell.” He pressed the trigger, and a blinding red beam raked across the creature. “I’ll bet your life.”

Ashraf was still screaming as they dragged him to the shuttle. “Where is it! Oh god, where is it? Is it coming to get us?” he cried. “Relax,” Darwin said, “it fell back down the shaft after Brogan smoked it. It’s time to leave.” “We’re not leaving”, Sven said, putting a hand on Brogan’s shoulder, “we’ve got some business down in the mine.” Darwin looked at Sven and Brogan. A smile spread on his face as he pulled out his sunglasses for the second time, and put them back on. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Hot Springs Island

Hot Springs Island: Session 0/1

This was our first time playing with Worlds Without Number (WWNWWN Worlds Without Number (2021), a ruleset (and more) by Kevin Crawford). Both sessions were on the shorter side: the first session was mostly spent creating characters, the second was online but cut short due to technical issues.

Notes that are for GM eyes only are in footnotes and hidden behind a link like this:1hi there!

The Cast

Anvil Levigne: an Artisan (Expert)
Abilities: Masterful Expertise, Quick Learner
Foci: Arms-master, Artisan (weapon-/black-smith)
Equipment: Short Sword, Throwing Knives, Small Shield, Buff Coat

Anvil is a master smith hailing from the town of Muriwai. He is following rumours of newly discovered ores and other means to improve his craft.

Ruber Valis: a Spare-Son Mage (Elementalist)
Foci: Poisoner
Arts: Elemental Sparks, Elemental Resilience, Beckoned Deluge
Spells: Elemental Spy, Wardpact Invocation, Cognitive Supersession of the Inferior

Ruber, an unwanted younger son, has recently come into the study of magic. His father has asked him to investigate the recently discovered Swordfish Islands for the benefit of the Valis family.

Hootford Jr.: a Guardsman (Warrior)
Abilities: Killing Blow, Veteran’s Luck
Foci: Nullifier (a suit of ancestral armour), Valiant Defender (sworn to defend the line of Valis)
Equipment: Short Sword, Large Shield, Pieced Armor

Hootford’s family have long been bodyguards for the noble line of Valis. He has been assigned to travel with Ruber and keep him safe from harm. Hootford is well skilled in survival.

Session 0: Arrival

The party washes up on a black sand beach, the last remnants of a storm beating themselves out against the rocks and trees.2This is the hex HS-15. Coughing up seawater, the characters regret the sequence of decisions that brought them here…

Waves on a black sand beach, with jungle in the background.
Black Sand Beach, Maui” by Pedro Szekely (2011, CC BY-NC-SA).

Ruber had secured passage to the Swordfish Islands for what was, in retrospect, a suspiciously cheap sum. Hootford & he boarded the ship Sandhorse, a run-down cargo transport that did not seem well-equipped to transport passengers, and the ship set out from Karkat. On the way they met Anvil, who had signed up to work for his passage to the Islands.

Part way through their journey the party became aware that a large ship was trailing them. The crew paid it no heed and when the three brought the ship to the attention of the captain, he dismissed their concerns.

As they neared the islands the ship trailed closer and closer, until it drew alongside, and the captain had his crew bind the ships together. Now the larger ship’s name was visible: The Unbroken.3A Martel Company ship. The three found themselves surrounded by the crew, with weapons drawn; they had no choice but to be bundled aboard the larger vessel. The captains shook hands, some kind of recompense was exchanged for these newly-captive passengers, and the ships departed from each other.

They were now within sight of the islands. The bo’sun motioned them over to a table, upon which lay a large ledger, when a strong wind began to blow. He frowned and told them to stay out of the way as the seamen began to reef the sails. These sailors were all in tidy uniform, dark blue with white piping and trim, and they stepped to the bo’sun’s orders with well-practiced professional competence.

The winds continued to increase, rain started to fall, and the sky darkened. The unnatural speed with which the storm grew seemed to upset the sailors, who worked with increasing speed. Despite their actions the ship began to wallow, larger and larger waves crashing over the gunwales, lightning striking the ocean, until suddenly there was enormous cracking noise and the whole deck lurched. The ship quickly began to take on water and the sailors began to unlash the ship’s boats.

The three managed to find a boat that no one else was attempting to untie. It was in poor condition, probably awaiting repairs, but with no other options they climbed aboard and cut the ropes. As the boat crested one, two waves, the ship disappeared behind a wall of water, and they were lost from sight.

The storm drove the boat towards the island and as they started to enter the surf, it capsized, throwing them and all their belongings into the turbulent waters.

… Hootford cursed Ruber’s naïvety as he spat out more sand. As the storm wore itself out, they looked out to sea. There was no trace of the ship or any of its crew.

Scattered across the beach were broken boxes and other flotsam and the party were able to recover some weapons and possessions from the wreckage.

As the sun rose, they were able to see more of the island. Black sand beaches skirted the island in both directions as far as they could see. They were sitting on a sandbar separated from the island by a small lagoon, and above the beach rose a dense jungle which seemed to cover the island. In the far distance, above the trees, a tall volcano rose. The sand surrounding the lagoon glinted in the morning light, with flecks of gold catching the early morning rays.

The party swam across the lagoon and made their way toward the jungle…

Session 1: Exploration

In the bushes they could hear snuffling and grunting noises, and pushing through the undergrowth, spotted a boar rooting around the base of a large tree.

Ruber used his Elemental Sparks to create a distraction for the boar as Anvil crept up and then leapt at the boar, slitting its throat. They spent a few hours butchering the boar and cooking some meat, Hootford showing the others what needed to be done.

With provisions secured, the party wandered back out to the beach to decide what to do next. Down the coast toward the south, they could see what seemed to be ruins peeking out of treeline, so they decided to continue that way.

The party made their way down the coast. The sand became blacker, with none of the golden flecks that were in the sand around the lagoon. Remnants of statuary and massive constructions began to appear in the jungle. All of the ruins were in a decayed state, with vines and flowers growing over them, but their origins were obvious to Anvil, who was able to identify the workmanship as Elven. Their civilization had fallen thousands of years ago, and it was now extremely rare to see an Elf.

As they rounded the next head, they were greeted with a view of a large, ruined city. Some buildings were submerged beneath the waves, and above them tiers of white stone buildings rose up against the mountainside. On the highest level was a large building topped by a dome.

A first view of the city.

In the harbour a ship lay at anchor; smaller than The Unbroken was, but still of a decent size. A boat was making its way to the “shoreline” where steps descended beneath the tide.

The party climbed a steep staircase up a wall into the city proper. In front of them, steaming water poured down a series of pools, which glistened with iridescent deposits. Some of the shining rock had been chipped away by tools.

They passed a large statue of a pregnant elf, which upon inspection was made from coral, and moved through the city toward the central staircase. As they passed one building, Ruber thought that he saw a pair of glowing eyes looking at him from the depths of the shadows, but upon a second glance they were gone.

When they make it to the stairs, they can see that the boat has been tied up at the base, but there is no sign of whoever was in it. They climb up the stairs toward the top of the city, and Ruber casts Elemental Spy on a pebble to leave beside the stairs and alert him if anyone is following them.

At the very top of the stairs, they find a large building which seems to be the focal point of the city. It stands three stories tall, with a frieze running around the building depicting elves fighting some kind of lizardlike humanoids. Ruber notices through the pebble two very large birds wandering slowly across the staircase. They hear a loud “Qwop! Qwop!” as one of the birds barks a call that echoes around the empty city. They continue to investigate the building, but as they are doing so they hear the sound of footsteps on the stairs, so they quickly move into the shadows of the façade.

Soon, four people reach the top of the stairs: a man with red hair dressed in bright yellow and green, a tall woman with dark hair and leather armour, a woman with a floppy hat and robes, and a shorter dark skinned man holding daggers. The first man runs toward the building but the woman with the hat calls out “Stop! You know what happened last time we went in there!” The man changes direction and the group of four turn to their right and run along the plateau.

Soon the two large birds reach the top of the stairs as well. They are not chasing the people but are looking inquisitively at each building and ruin as they pass. Hootford decides to approach the birds and steps out from the shadows. He holds his hand out with some of the preserved boar meat and “qwops” in a low voice. The bird walks toward him. It is taller than him, eight or nine feet tall, with dusty grey feathers, a powerful beak and stocky legs. As it approaches it sniffs Hootford’s outstretched hand, then, looking surprised, picks up the meat and swallows it in one gulp. At the same time, Hootford has reached out and plucked one of the large grey feathers from the bird’s chest. The bird regards him a little longer, but when it is apparent no more food is forthcoming, it rejoins the other bird, and they move off through the city. Hootford gives the feather to Ruber.

Turning away from the departing birds, the party moves deeper into the large building.

Inside they see two staircases leading upwards: one decrepit, falling apart, and overgrown, like the rest of the ruins. The other looks pristine, undamaged. As they near this staircase the owl-heads mounted on the shoulders of Hootford’s magic armour begin to spin, warning him that there is magic at work. Ruber is also able to detect the magic, and it seems very old. Nevertheless, they make their way up the pristine staircase, only to find at the top a crowd of elves drinking and laughing.

This is extremely unusual: elves are very rare and have not been seen in any significant numbers in thousands of years. They observe the crowd, who are in various costumes and states of (un)dress, some drinking, some smoking, most laughing and enjoying themselves. A waiter walks directly toward the characters, carrying a tray of iced drinks. As he nears, Anvil reaches out to take one, but the waiter continues to walk — directly through Anvil’s body!

Next: Hot Springs Island: Session 2, the Bathhouse