Where I read: Liminal – Chapter 1

It’s time for another “where I read…” series. I have a a number of books, games I am unlikely to find the opportunity to play anytime soon, that I need to discipline myself to read and absorb. In the coming months, look forward to read-throughs of Vampire V and Phoenix Dawn Command, among others. Right now though, I am going to tackle the slimmest column in my book pile, not just because it will be the quickest, but it’s also the one I know least about and the one I am most interested in.

Among the unfinished draft posts that litter the unpublished area of this blog are more than a few about turning Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Peter Grant series of novels (otherwise known as the Rivers of London series) into a Role Playing Game. The posts are unfinished, and indeed the game is hardly started – just a few scribbled notes about Cortex, Fate and now, of course, the Year Zero Engine.

While I have been timewasting, Paul Mitchener has just got on with with it, producing a book that was Kickstarted a year ago. I did not kick in at the time, as my KS budget was spent, but the PDF just came out on Drive-thru, and being curious, even though I still didn’t really have the budget, I splashed out. To be honest I didn’t really look too deeply into the Kickstarter, as I worried I might be tempted to overspend. So I come to this book with as close to zero knowledge as you can get.

And colour me impressed. The art on the KS looked attractive, but seriously doesn’t do justice to the quality of art throughout the book. There one or two pieces that aren’t quite as good as the others but, by god, this is pretty, very pretty indeed. If I recall, the KS only has print on demand options available, quite rightly for a game with a limited print run, but … it’s so beautiful, this book deserves a proper printing.

Design and layout aren’t bad either, marred (for me) only by one thing: I am a typography snob and while, generally, type choices are excellent (I particularly like the use of Senator) , I am disappointed by the use of Mason for chapters and sub headings. Mason’s gothic stylings became a bit of a cliché on the covers of unlicensed Buffy encyclopaedias, trashy urban fantasy, and second rate witchcraft TV. And it’s use here let’s the quality and imagination of the rest of the book down.

Mason. Ugh!

I think that’s about as rude as I will get on this book though. ‘Cause the rest of the book is gorgeous. And if I am feeling charitable, I guess … I guess you could say that for a game designed to emulate that sort of 90s urban fantasy fiction, it’s at least … appropriate … I suppose.

Anyhow, rant over, let’s look at the content of chapter one. We get a little intro from the changing, Ygraine Green, depicted in one of the lovely portraits that litter this book. Then there is a handy list of the sort of people who are Liminals, though who stand on the boundary between mundane and Hidden worlds, the sort of people your character will be. This list includes werewolves but no vampires (though vampires do exist in this world). The usual “What is roleplaying?” Section includes a dice turn of phrase about the GM:

there is one distinguished player, the Game Master

This firmly classes the GM as a player, which I strongly agree with. A very short note on dice suggests the mechanics are close to Traveller, the example says roll 2d6 and add for a total. But it’s also suggests it might be more than two dice sometimes.

There’s another monologue from a former police officer which illustrates the matter-of-factness which which Liminals regard the Hidden World. Then some facts for us players: magic, vampires, werewolves, the fae, and ghosts are real in this world. Though firmly set in Britain, “the myths and beings of the world of Liminal are often international in origin, sometimes due to the metaphorical (rather than literal) ghost of the British Empire.” There are “factions” organising the activities of magicians, vampires etc, and at least two mundane factions “in the know”, one in the church (which interestingly works across both Protestant and catholic branches) and one in the police. Most mundanes dinky think to looks for signs of the supernatural, but they are easy enough to find if you do choose to look for them.

Then there is a summary of the other chapters in the book. The next chapter deals with character creation, the third is about forming the characters into a crew (will I find I prefer doing it the other way round I wonder?). The rules are in chapter four and magic in five. Chapter six describes the various factions in more detail, seven is a bit of a gazetteer. GM advice is in chapter eight, and chapter nine is a “bestiary”. There are two adventures in the last chaper. Called “cases” they reveal the influence of PC Peter Grant, and the police procedural in general, on the game.

And indeed, over the page, the Grant series tops the list of “Inspirational Media”. Others include Neverwhere, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Hellblazer, Being Human, and Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. I am slightly disappointed not to see some classics of children’s fiction, Alan Garner’s books, including The Owl Service, and American author Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, in the list. A somewhat less disappointing omission, or less surprising at least, because hardly anyone listens to the radio nowadays it seems, is the excellent BBC Radio 4 series Pilgrim, by Sebastian Baczkiewicz. Cursed to eternal life by the fairy king, the pilgrim, William Palmer is a true Liminal, walking the boundaries of the mundane and Hidden worlds. I might see how easy he is to create when I read chapter two.

Year Zero Engine attributes and skills

Apropos of nothing in particular, definitely not thinking about a Year Zero hack 😉 I am looking at the slight differences between attributes and skills in the across the range of Year Zero games. There are few, but not insignificant changes in the Attributes. While you might expect differences across genres, I was at first surprised to see differences among the Mutant games, that not only share the post-apocalyptic genre, but also take place in the same world.

In the first, Mutant: Year Zero the four attributes are Strength, Agility, Wits and Empathy. But in the sequel, Genlab Alpha, Empathy is related by Instinct. And in Mutant: Mechatron, the characters have four entirely different attributes: Servos; Stability; Processor and Network.

I have never run or played any of the Mutant games, and I only own two: Year Zero and Genlab Alpha, so I wonder how much it changes things when you mix more than one Mutant ruleset in a campaign, which surely must be a tempting thing for GMs. It seems rich with possibility, having a group of PCs that are radically different.

While we are looking at those games, it worth noting that some of the skill names are different. And while in some cases, these differences might just be cosmetic, better reflecting the theme of the game (So, for example Assault in Mechatron may not be different, really, to Fight in Zero and Alpha), some might have more mechanical connotations. Not having the rules to Mechatron, I can’t be sure how different Overload is to Endure for example.

The game that introduced me to the Year Zero system was Coriolis. And, though it shares attributes with its predecessor, Mutant Year Zero, it’s distribution of skills is very different. In the civilisation of the far future, pure physical strength has apparently less value, and adds dice to just two skills, force and melee combat. Wits on the other hand contributes to six skills, including Medicurgy, the equivalent to Heal in the other games, but no longer paired with the Empathy attribute. That’s said Empathy does replace Heal with two new skills: Culture which is analogous of the wits based “Know…” skills of Mutant; and Mystic Powers, which opens up a number of supernatural Talents. Agility replaces Move with Dexterity, Sneak with Infiltration and Shoot with Ranged Combat. It also adds Pilot to the skills list.

Tales from the Loop (and it’s sequel, Things from the Flood) shakes up the attributes. Broadly speaking, in the other games there are two physical attributes and two mental attributes. Effectively Loop gives us just one physical attribute, Body, and three skills associated with it, Sneak, Force and Move. You’ll recognise that sneak in the other games is an Agility based skill. There’s no fighting in Loop. And in Flood fighting is covered by the Force skill.

The other three attributes in these two games are Tech, Heart and Mind. (It’s a small thing to point out, but in all the other games, the Heart analogue, Empathy, is listed last of the four, here it’s third. Is that only because Heart(s) and Mind(s) is the order of a phrase in English?) All three are mental/emotional rather than physical, and Tech is really a second Mind attribute, with setting specific mental skills: Tinker; Programme and Calculate.

Now this is not a review of those games, but I do question the names of some of these skills. Calculate for example, is analogous to the Know… or Culture skill in the other games not, as you might think, a calculation skill. That’s said, if it were, it would be somewhat redundant, covered by programming. The name of the mind skill, Comprehend, would in fact be a better name for Calculate. Comprehend is a hangover from Year Zero, but in this interaction it would be better called Research.

Anyway, what I like about the attributes and skills in Loop and Flood is that it gives Year Zero Engine hackers implicit permission of be really imaginative in their games.

Forbidden Lands, the most recent genre addition to the Year Zero Engine stable day offers sixteen skills, like Coriolis. But unlike that game, it distributes them across the four attributes. Force becomes Might, Fighting becomes Melee and Strength gets a new skill, Crafting. Part of me struggles with this. I feel Craft should be a more dexterous skill than brute force, but I guess, in the medieval milieu the strength of the blacksmith is the more common craft.

Agility’s fourth skill is Sleight of Hand. Wits adds Insight, which arguably is similar to Sense Emotion, an Empathy skill in the Mutant games. The Empathy based skills in Forbidden Lands include Performance and Animal Handling.

So, with more skills to spend build points on, do Forbidden Lands Characters get more points than other games? In Zero, players get 14 points for attributes and 10 for skills. Age becomes a factor in Alpha, players get between 13 and 15 points to spend on Attributes and 8 to 12 on skills. Its the same in Lands, despite having more skills to chose from. And Coriolis which also has sixteen rather than twelve skills, has the same allowance too.

The Black Sheep II “Portalhopper”

If there is a problem with the rich background of Coriolis it is GM paralysis. Almost every paragraph is a really cool adventure seed, but we know that some paragraphs will be expanded upon in future publications. For example, take the Emissaries. If you only ever read the core book, the Emissaries could be a cool thing for your player characters to investigate, and over the course of the campaign, the GM and the players could create a marvellous history for the Emissaries, unpack their motives and desires, and imagine a mutually satisfying reason for their mysterious appearance. And talking of appearances, the core book doesn’t even reveal what they look like – I was imagining something like the Vorlon in Babylon 5

Until I read the Atlas Compendium, which reveals … well, let’s keep the mystery alive for your players, and just say that they are, biologically at least, as human as the rest of us. And of course, we know that the upcoming first part of the Mercy of the Icons campaign is called Emissary Lost, so I imagine most English speaking GMs are putting the Emissaries to one side, until that comes out. Not the Swedes though, the Swedes are already enjoying that campaign. (Mumble, gripe)

Then there is the “Taoan incident” Its a big mystery. Dangerous enough for the Legion and the Order to work together, and put aside their differences? (Or are they?) Fleets of ships are going though the portal, and very few are returning … what is going on?

I have plenty of ideas. But the Last Voyage of the Ghazali is coming out soon, and that includes a flashback to the very beginning of the Taoan incident. What if there is a really cool secret in that scenario that contradicts whatever I have already told the players?

As it turns out my players were curious about the Taoan incident, but demonstrated very little desire to investigate it. That didn’t stop me thinking about it though, and how I might give players a taste of the Taoan incident without giving them much opportunity to discover what what was actually going on … yet. I do have a pretty good idea about what the incident is, one which fits the arc my players are on, but it’s not one I’d want to share this early in the campaign. And in the interim (given how infrequently we get to play) The Last Voyage of the Ghazali might present me with a really cool idea that blows mine out of the water.

So just in case my players were curious, I had an idea for a scenario about the “Dabaran Run” race. Where speed is of the essence, and the player characters are motivated not to linger. The race would includ the Taoan system, and that visit might well be the climax of the adventure, but the players would be too concerned about survival and reaching the next portal to worry about investigating the mystery.

Around the same time that I was thinking about that possible adventure, David Reichgeld, who created the lovely floor plans for Samar’s Hamam, shared a 3D modelled ship design he’d been working on, and invited suggestions for what it might be.

I knew exactly what it was, a Black Sheep, the perfect ship to compete in the Dabaran Run, and this is what I wrote:

The shipyards of Darkos are known for practical, armed freighters. But the biannual “Dabaran Run” race, which started decades ago as a simple bet between two Shipmasters, has prompted the development of specialised class 1 portalhoppers, in which pilots compete in their own single class race, while the freighters battle it out. The are often piloted by the scions of great trading families. These are the Black Sheep II model. Fast and manoeuvrable.

Since the Taoan incident, the Race has been postponed, and portal hoppers like this have been mothballed. But it is said a rogue group of disgruntled pilots are retrofitting stealth tech to them and plan an illicit, and dangerous, revival of the race.

There was no time for sleep during the Dabaran Run, so the racing portal hoppers had a crew of two. The limited accommodation was taken up by two stasis holds for portal jumps, which meant the crews took turns sleeping in their cockpit seat, or stretched out in a stasis bed. Facilities were inhumane, with pre-packed food, a very basic shared “head” and no washing facilities. Ground crews charged with cleaning the ship out after races were hardy folk, with very poor sense of smell.

In happier days, occasional shots were taken at other competitors with a cheap autocannon, chosen because of its dreadful range, and limited probability of life threatening damage. Those preparing to take the run since the Taoan incident, fully aware that they know little or nothing of the dangers in that system, have pragmatically swapped out the cannon for a countermeasure dispenser – thinking that running away is a better option than fitting a bigger gun.

STANDARD MODEL

ENERGY POINTS: 4 HULL POINTS: 3 MANEUVERABILITY: +3 SIGNATURE: -2 ARMOR: 1 SPEED: 5 MODULES: Cockpit, reactor, graviton projector, stasis hold x2, autocannon FEATURES: Turbo projector, supercharged reactor EXTRA GEAR: none PROBLEM: Unreliable Sensors COST: 195,000 birr.

RETROFITTED TAOAN MODEL

ENERGY POINTS: 4 HULL POINTS: 3 MANEUVERABILITY: +3 SIGNATURE: -3 ARMOR: 1 SPEED: 5 MODULES: Cockpit, reactor, graviton projector, stasis hold x2, countermeasure dispenser FEATURES: Turbo projector, supercharged reactor, stealth technology EXTRA GEAR: none PROBLEM: Slow Accelerator COST: 205,000 birr.

A Coriolis Curry

When we went to Sweden to chat with the guys from Fria Ligan, they told us that they hadn’t always been as good at running Kickstarters as they are now. They mentioned that they had been a little too ambitious setting stretch-goals for the Swedish language edition of Coriolis. In particular they mentioned that they hadn’t (yet) delivered on Wahib’s Cookbook, a stretch goal unlocked at 200,000 Kroner. I am sure they are working on it, and it will get delivered. But in the meantime, there are over 400 Swedish backers who are starving desperately awaiting the delivery of that PDF so that they can cook and eat a meal at last.

In the absence of Wahibs Cookbook, the Coriolis Effect comes to the rescue! I thought I’d share one of the recipes that I make for the boys, when it’s my turn to host a session. I always like to make a meal that is at least tangentially related to the game we’re playing, whether it’s venison stew for A Song of Ice and Fire, or sausage and mash when we’re playing dashing British World War One pilots.

This one is a sort of curry, with a wide enough variety of spices to require a visit to the Spice Plaza on Coriolis Station. And while we’re at the market, here’s the shopping list. With apologies to our American listeners, measurements are metric. If it helps, a pound is about 500 grams. It’s a pretty forgiving recipe, so if you want to replace the specific regiments with “some”, you’ll probably get away with it. Watch out for the spices though. This provides four generous portions.

2 tbsp vegetable oil

500g goat or lamb fillet, cut into cubes

2 onions, roughly chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 green chillies, finely chopped (these are optional)

1 tbsp fresh ginger, shredded

1 tbsp ground turmeric

1½ tbsp garam masala

1½ tbsp ground cumin

1 tbsp paprika

1 tbsp plain flour

4 sweet potatoes, chopped

1 tin, about 400g, chopped tomato’s

1/2 block 100g creamed coconut, dissolved in 400ml water

250g baby spinach leaves

pomegranate seeds to dress

steamed rice, to serve

Turn on the oven, and let it heat up to 150 degrees centigrade. This is best if slow cooked. In the meantime, heat a large saucepan and add a tablespoon of the vegetable oil and then the meat. Brown it over a high heat for 3-4 minutes, then remove take it out of the saucepan.

Reduce the heat and add another tablespoon of vegetable oil. Fry the onions, garlic, chillies and ginger for 2-3 minutes, until golden and softened. Add all the spices and fry, stirring well, for one minute. Add the flour and cook for a further minute.

Add the sweet potato, the tin of tomatoes and the coconut milk and heat to bring to a simmer. Put the lamb back in and heat the mixture until simmering, then cover and put in the oven for about one hour, or until the lamb is tender and cooked through. Just before serving, take it out of the oven, and stir in the spinach (the sweet potato should be soft enough now to break up and thicken the sauce). Serve onto warmed plates with steamed basmati rice and sprinkle the pomegranate seeds over the top.

It’s a dish Wahib himself would be proud to serve.

Unknown Synergies

My “where I read” Unknown Armies has taken a necessary hiatus while I ran a short campaign. It turns out that running UA takes a lot more work between sessions than I am used to. Normal service will be shortly. In the meantime though I wanted to make a short post about how the campaign went. And broadly speaking, I think it went well, though there are definitely some things that I would do differently.

First among those was letting our Adept player make his own school of magick. I am not adverse to imagination and custom design, but I think as we were both neophytes, I should have made him run with one of the existing schools in the book. Jase had a great idea for a magick school, and the background made for a great character in play. But in the end I did most of the legwork in creating charging rituals and formulae, in constant what’s app and Facebook discussing with him, and the end result of that was that his didn’t really have ownership of the spells, and I worry that he didn’t feel he was using enough magick.

On the other hand, Thom, who played an “other” supernatural type, a Brujo de Chiloé, had a more natural grasp of his abilities, and played them to the full, even though there were more limited than the Adept. The other Tom played a pony to great effect, his character was a trustafaraian psychonaut. Watching these three characters interact was great fun, but I think, they showed me that if I was running “my first Unknown Armies campaign” again, I would insist that all the players build ponies (I should say “ponies” is in-game slang for normal people, or people without great magickal powers). Then, I’d introduce the players to the world through their characters, letting them encounter Adepts and Avatars before playing them.

Our Avatar player was “The Captain” but again, I think a lack of confidence with the system prevented her from playing the Captain to the full. She was more comfortable watching from the sidelines. Which makes me think, that I’d recommend another “first time” player who really wanted to be an Avatar choose another, less proactive one. And the other big problem I encountered was integrating a player who hadn’t been in at the beginning. I followed the guidelines in the book, but felt that the poor guy was an observer, not really invested in the action.

All these failures are mine, I hasten to add, I’m not getting at the players here. I think I should have done more to make it easier for the Adept to use magick, the Avatar to play her role and take charge and the new player (a great alcoholic doctor concept) to feel part of the team.

So what went well? Lots of things. The “Session Zero” character and cabal creation was a dream. The players came up with a great objective – to end the world by working out what had stopped the Mayan apocalypse clock and restarting it. Which I will admit was a somewhat more cosmic objective than I imagined for a first campaign. The connection that characters made between themselves and NPCs were a great tool for me to work with as a GM. Setting up a chunk of possibilities, for antagonists and settings. The cabal decided that the clock might exist in a lost Mayan city … weeks before we all heard about a lost Mayan city being discovered! Synchronicity or what?

The first adventure went really well too. Some weeks after Session Zero, we had lost a player (Jamie was redeployed in RL). This might have been a problem, since we had decided he was the one with most knowledge about the stopping of the clock, but an NPC, Jillian, that he and another player shared relationships with easily solved that issue. She took Tom’s slacker character “Humph” to the rooftop chillout area of the club we had created to get high and talk about the MIA Castle (Jamie’s character). He had a critical success rolling against his Psychonaut identity, so I gave him a vision which helped the team come up with milestones for the campaign. Meanwhile, I’d planned for a couple of Blue Line agents to stage a drugs raid on the club, as cover for their search for Jillian. All the players reacted really well, with Jase throwing one agent off the roof. And Thom and Sophia’s characters drugging the second before they made their escape.

The second adventure was I think the most “Unknown Armies.” With Jase’s character making non-Euclidean porn to charge up a formula to wipe his identity after he got caught on camera robbing the Blue Line copper he’d thrown off the roof, and then killing Jillian so that Thom’s Brujo could skin her to get at the map that they had worked out was tattooed onto the inside of her back. Then of course they realised the map revealed a location in Mexico and Jase no longer had a valid passport. So off to Newcastle to meet Geordie the (blind) Forger for new papers. Disposing of Jillian’s body at Humph’s uncles pig farm (and killing the gamekeeper who caught them in act and feeding him to the pigs too). Oh, and stealing an antique Philippe Patek watch which they had decided they’d need for a ritual to open the otherspace to the Mayan clock, off Humph’s uncle too, while they were in the neighbourhood.

Geordie the Forger wanted to be paid in guns. So the third session involved a visit to a Cheetham Hill dealer, and while they were in Manchester, picking up Matt’s doctor. I had relied on someone getting injured in Cheetham Hill, and them needing a backstreet doctor. But the action did not fall out the way I expected, so I wish I had thought of a better way to bring Matt’s new character into the cabal. Sophia worked hard to recruit him to her character Helen’s crew, thankfully, but I should not have left the her to do all the heavy lifting. It meant that in the latter sessions, three of the cabal who had crossed the line between moral in immoral took most of the protagonist actions, while Sophia and Matt too their characters out of the action. As I say, not their fault, a perfect for each character’s story, but I feel ultimately unsatisfactory for either of them.

Then another bit of synergic news hit the web. Just before the final session (where I had intended a centuries old mechanomancer to be the antagonist who had stopped the doomsday clock) it was revealed that Jeff Bezos was building his own 10,000 clock, which, Thom suggested, and we all agree meant that he was the antagonist , and his building site was actually another portal into the otherspace containing the apocalypse clock! All very cool, and I loved the idea, but it meant that that “final” episode ended on a bit of an anti-climax as we ran out of time and decided to run the Bezos encounter in a later session.

I LOVE the inversion, and my players are great, but I feel I maybe should have stuck with my original plan, and encounter with the Zero Heron, to have a more climactic final scene. As it was no-one was even slightly injured, so I particularly feel for Matt’s character who had nothing to do really by watch the rest of the cabal.

Lessons learned for next time.

Chapter 3: The battle at Turraz Ghal Part 3

Nhim’s eyes snapped open. She could hear the sound of sea gulls squawking and wooden boats gently knocking together atop water. She sat up and felt a jolt of pain run down her back. “No, no dear! You mustn’t move too quick” said a red haired, Elven nurse moving gracefully towards her. “It’s a miracle you are even alive! Master Rogar spent days fixing that spine of yours”. Nhim looked around. She was in a large room with multiple beds however she seemed to be the only occupant.

“My regiment” Nhim choked “Nurse, where are they? They need my help”. The Elf sat down gently on the bed beside Nhim. “I’m afraid we don’t know who survived. We barely managed to teleport you out in time. If I remember correctly, news from the front said the Eighty Seventh were overrun a fortnight after we came for you” said the red haired nurse in a sombre tone.

‘A fortnight after?’ thought Nhim. How long had she been out? The questions began to pour from Nhim’s mouth. “Nurse, how long have I been here? Who are you? What do you mean came for me? Who’s we? And forgive me but, teleported?”

“I know it’s hard to hear but you’ve been unconscious here at the Mages Guild for fourteen moon cycles”. Nhim couldn’t comprehend what the nurse was saying but continued to listen. “Answers will come in time once you have regained your strength little one. For now focus on your recovery.” said the elf as she stroked Nhims forehead delicately and sat up from the bed. She produced a red letter with a golden wax seal and placed it on the table opposite the bed.

“I have a long journey ahead to gather our future colleagues, but when you are ready read this letter. Master Rogar will be by later to check on you again. “Just before she left the room the Elf paused at the door, turned to Nhim and spoke in a voice full of empathy.

“I’m truly sorry for you loss young Nhim” she then disappeared out of the door. Nhim slumped back onto the bed and she felt another jolt of pain run down her spine as she began to make sense of what had just happened.

Chapter 3: The battle at Turraz Ghal Part 2

An air of silence hung over the battlefield apart from the odd words of command being bellowed from officers and sergeants within the Eighty Seventh. ‘It was the calm before the storm’ thought Nhim, as she watched the creatures obscured by the billowing dusts of the Red Wastes silently advance towards the trench line. “We’re dead, we are all fucking dead” muttered a young soldier under his breath beside her. The boy was dressed in the red and white uniform of the King’s troop but it was torn and mismatched like every other soldiers here and it hung ill fitted from his malnourished body. He clasped at his rifle so tight his fingers nails were beginning to make indents into the un-oiled wood.

“Hold firm boys,” shouted a hardened gunnery Sargent as he paced the lines behind the nervous riflemen “Don’t fire until I say boys, we are only gonna have one shot at these horrors before they are upon us”. Nhim watched as he stopped beside her and plunged the lower half of his halberd into the mud so it stood upright beside him. He drew a fine pistol and barged between the nervous young soldier and Nhim, knocking her to the ground.

“Aim right between the eyes if whatever is coming our way has em!” She heard him shout. “And if not just make sure you hit the blasted thing! Today you earn the silver the king pays you boys!” continued the sergeant as he cocked the fine flintlock pistol and aimed it towards the advancing beasts.

Nhim once again peered over the parapet of the trench and could now see the advancing enemy much clearer. At first she could only make out dark shadows but as they came closer she saw deep set glowing red eyes in the skulls of the beasts along with black lizard like scales adorning their bodies. Each creature stood about 5ft tall and lumbered towards them on two legs. It was hard to make out, but every few moments she caught a glimpse of razor sharp, clawed hands, that protruded from the creatures upper body. It wasn’t until they were only thirty meters from the trench line, that Nhim noticed each beast carried a single cloaked rider. She tried to count their numbers but for the third time lost count as more creatures appeared and broke into a charge towards them.

“FIRE!” Bellowed the gunnery Sargent who stood to Nhims left. The hammers of a hundred flintlock rifles fell simultaneously and a thick cloud of gunpowder smoke filled the air. Before her vision was obscured by the smoke, Nhim watched as some of the shots found its target in the closing gap and a few of the beasts fell.

“FIX BAYONETS” shouted the gunnery sergeant beside her as he steadied his pistol. He was yet to take his shot as a pistol would be far too ineffective at this range. Nhim heard the sound of steel scraping on steel as the men of the Eighty Seventh drew their bayonets and attached them to their rifles. ‘This was going to end badly’ thought Nhim as she sunk back below the trench parapet and grabbed her bag of the few medical supplies she had remaining. The Eighty Seventh had already suffered heavy losses and she doubted they could hold the line this time, what was the point in all this endless death if the enemy just kept coming in greater numbers?

With a crack Nhim heard the gunnery sergeant fire off his pistol and she turned at the sound, just as one of the monstrous creatures jumped clean over the top of the trench line and landed with a heavy thud behind them. Once again the gunnery sergeant knocked small Nhim to the ground and grabbed towards his halberd. With the effortless grace of a well drilled veteran soldier, he spun the weapon around into two hands and drove the steel pointed end towards the beast. The lizard like creature reared exposing its soft underbelly and throwing its rider into the mud behind. It let out a terrifying roar and Nhim saw razor sharp teeth line the beast’s mouth along with a long purple tongue that dripped with green syrup-like saliva.

The gunnery sergeant remained un-phased as he drove the sharp, steel pointed halberd into the creature’s belly. The point plunged a good four inches into its chest and the creatures roar turned into a scream of pain. Nhim watched as its body crashed down on top of the gunnery sergeant snapping the halberd in two. The creatures claws grabbed out and tore deep cuts into the sergeant’s torso as it struggled to regain its footing. Suddenly Nhim heard another crack of rifle fire. The younger, nervous soldier must have frozen and not taken his shot with the others, as he had rounded and fired directly into the beast’s skull. Black scales and green blood exploded from its temple as the shot found its target. The heavy body of the creature instantly fell to the floor trapping the sergeant under its weight. As life faded from its red eyes, blood began to pour from the wound and spilt onto the sergeant’s face. He started screaming as Nhim saw the blood trickle across his eyes and begin to burn away at them with an acidic power.

Nhim stood in shock, rooted to the spot. The smell of burning flesh filled her nose. She was unable to move as she watched the horrific scene unfold before her. She had seen men die before, even listened to them beg for their mothers as they bled out, or whisper final words to loved ones to her, but never anything like this. As she watch the acidic blood burn and disfigure the sergeant’s face, she began to feel the very essence of her soul split and her mind began to unravel.

For a third time Nhim felt herself knocked to the ground. As she looked up and wiped the mud from her eyes she saw the nervous soldier barrel past her, brandishing his rifle by the barrel with the butt raised above him. He continued to charge screaming in both anger and fear towards the beast’s rider who was starting to come too. He swung the rifle down in a club-like fashion on the hooded rider. Nhim watched as he repeated the attack several more times, scarlet red blood erupting like a fountain with each swing.

The young soldier stopped as apart from a twitching foot, the rider laid still. He dropped his rifle and looked up at Nhim. A mad smile broke out across his face as tears fell from his eyes and he dropped to his knees. Nhim heard a familiar mighty roar as the leg of a second beast thudded into the mud beside her. The other leg landed heavy on her back, claws penetrating into her. She heard an officer’s horn blow in the background as her vision began to fade and sink slowly into darkness. ‘Was this death?’ She thought and began to panic. Nhim mustered all her strength, opened her eyes and clung to life. She could hear officers calling though the chaos of battle for a general retreat. Nhim felt the beast’s weight leave her body She looked up to see it walking towards the soldier on his knees. Through blurred vision Nhim saw the claws of the creature pierce the boy’s chest but he did not scream. The creature toyed with him for just a moment until the rider pulled on its reigns. With one powerful bite its jaws closed around his head and torso ripping him in two and throwing the remains beside Nhim.

Nhims breathing started to become shallow and she felt a sharp pain in her chest. She began to cough and blood spluttered from her throat. Nhim had seen this injury before; the creature must have punctured her lung as it landed. She closed her eyes and let the darkness take her. She felt a wave of relief come over her as she accepted her end and let go. Her last thought that day was of eating bucklerberry jam scones on the dock. A time before she knew what war was. She began to smile and drifted into the darkness.

Chapter 3: The battle at Turraz Ghal Part 1.

Nhim sat with her back against the wall in a hastily dug trench. Mud was clad to her boots so thick that she could no longer make out the dark blue leather beneath and water had begun to seep through the stitching making her feet icy cold. Her usual rosy completion was hidden by a layer of dried blood and ash whilst her shoulder length bright pink hair had become knotted and infested with Reamer Lice. She had been stationed on the edge of the Red Wastes for three moon cycles and she was exhausted. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air along with the now all too familiar scent of death. A constant reminder of the fate that awaited her unit, as the beaks of the buzzards pecked and tore at those who had fallen in the last few days of battle. Nhim had begun to think they were the lucky ones. No longer did they have to endure the constant sensation of being wet and cold, nor the endless reminder that death could come at any moment. ‘At least they had found some peace’ she thought as she closed her eyes and remembered the day that had brought her to this place.

Nhim had grown up on the sky islands that floated between the village of Linn and Glimmercairn, the entrance to the Dwarven realms. As a young Gnome, Nhim found she had an affiliation for healing. Her grandmother was a spiritual woman and was always telling Nhim how she was special. Before she passed she told her, “You, young girl, have the gift of healing in your hands! One day the people of Talderia will look to you to help them in their hour of need. Will you answer?” Nhim however was fascinated by nature, herbalism and the tales of the ancient druidic guardians that watched over all life in Talderia. After much study and hard work, Nhim had saved enough gold to set up a small natural remedies shop in the quiet town of Linn Skyport. Years passed as she carved out a successful, quiet life for herself and on her one hundred and forty third birthday, which was still relatively young for a Gnome, Nhim decided to do as she always did on her birthday and treat herself to a breakfast at a café she enjoyed by the docks.

It was a day just like any other. She sat at the outside table and ate scones with buckler berry jam as she watched the ships come into town. One particular ship caught Nhims attention as it dwarfed the others in size as it approached the town. It was a military transport ship which bore the markings of the Kings Eighty Seventh Medical Corp along its stern. Nhim asked the couple sat next to her if they knew the ship? They told her that it was ferrying wounded back from ‘the front’ as the soldiers called it. Nhim didn’t know what exactly ‘the front’ was at the time but watched in horror as countless numbers of soldiers, some barely old enough to be called men exited the ship. Some of them wandered without purpose and slumped themselves onto the dockside, others were carried from the ship upon stretchers.

Almost instantly Nhim dropped the buckler berry jam scone and ran forward to assist the overwhelmed nurses and doctors of the Eighty Seventh Medical Corp who were treating the wounded. They were immensely grateful for the help. Most of the soldiers had grievous injuries such as long, deep slashes across their bodies or huge chunks of flesh that had been torn away. Others seemed physically fine but, when she spoke with them they answered in quiet whispers and ineligible sentences. One doctor told her “Whilst these men seem physically fine it seems their minds have been broken somehow, I cannot imagine what sight could do such a thing but I for one never want to whiteness it”.

After assisting throughout the day and into the deep hours of the night, Nhim found herself on the deck of the ship with a group of the Kings Eighty Seventh Medical Corp Nurses. As they all drank solemnly together they told her how desperate they were for healers like her to join their cause. They begged Nhim to sail with them in the morning back to the Red Wastes and continue to assist them. She was happy that she had helped on that day. She even hoped she had saved some of the young men’s lives but Nhim was content with the small part of Talderia she had found for herself. She then remembered the words of her grandmother. Was this the ‘hour of need’ her grandmother had referred to thought Nhim? She spent the rest of the evening gazing over the bow of the ship and continued to think on that question until the sun began to crest on the seas horizon. By the morning Nhim knew she couldn’t abandon the Eighty Seventh or the soldiers on ‘the front’. She had to sail with them.

It was now three years later and Nhim was a full member within the Kings Eighty Seventh Regiment. The unit had been posted in Turraz Ghal, the ruined city which separated the Red Wastes from the Elven kingdoms. It was their job to guard the ruins and ensure nothing made it through to the forests beyond, but they were now desperately low on fighting men and supplies. All expeditions into the Red Wastes had ceased due to this, however the great expanse was far from deserted. From the depths of the ashen landscape came abyssal horrors, each one more horrid than the last. When Nhim had first arrived she did not believe the stories of the un-dead and multi-limbed creatures that she was told by the soldiers, but that all changed within the first week on ‘the front’. She now knew why the men on the dock acted the way they did that day. Seeing fellow comrades ripped apart like paper only to be reanimated and march against you can twist the mind. This is why Nhim tried not to get too close to any of her comrades. Not only did she feel a massive guilt when they were beyond her healing powers, she had seen her close friends die and had become cold towards death. She was reaching her breaking point.

Nhim was so lost in her thoughts of home that she barely noticed the guard horn sound and opened her tired eyes. All around her soldiers ferrying supplies and crouched in the trench line readying muskets. She pushed her fatigued body to its feet and climbed the first two steps of the trench ladder to peer over the top. With squinted eyes she tried to see what horror was making its way towards them. It was hard to make anything out through the smoke and dust that drifted silently across the Red Waste. Then, all of a sudden, she saw a shadow about two hundred meters from the trench. A creature no larger than a horse but with a silhouette that seemed to shift as eerily as the ash clouds that surrounded it. She then noticed a second creature appear beside it, and then came a third, then more. Each creature stopped next to the other and stood silently. ‘Could this be the day?’ thought Nhim. ‘Could this be the day I die?’

As if all at once, the creatures that stood before them began to silently advance towards Nhim and the waiting soldiers of the Kings Eighty Seventh Regiment.

Chapter 2: The Evening Watch and Quiffel Soup Part 2.

Vexahnas and Flint had left the sleepy town of West Cross Port behind. Over the past two and half weeks they had taken the south eastern path, made their way through the Calles forest and eventually found the entrance to Follg Pass just were Master Talisman had told Vexahnas it would be. Now as they made their way down numerous dark staircases, it felt to Vexahnas as if she and Flint had been descending these caverns for days. The fresh air of the forest that she loved so much had quickly given way to the damp, stale smell that now filled her nose. She had fashioned a breathing mask from an old cloth but it did nothing to combat the discomfort. Flint on the other hand seemed quite at home in the dark of Follg Pass, he strode confidently a few faces paces ahead of her recounting tales of his various family members to make the time pass. “You see missy, my third cousin Ulfgar, twice removed mind, was a Path-maker” said Flint, his deep voice echoing around the rocks. “He lost a hand whilst setting a dynamite charge during the expansion of Glaphis Gate. Before that little incident he reckoned himself to the best gunpowder engineer in all the Dwarven kingdoms! Not so much after that!” Flint said laughing. Vexahnas rolled her eyes as she knew Flint wasn’t looking her way. She had absolute faith in Master Talisman and hoped that his vision was the answer but she couldn’t see how this Dwarf could help them. He was a scoundrel and the company he kept sounded just as bad.

The two came to a natural fork in the cave leading them either left or right. They stopped and both contemplated which way to go. ‘It all looked the same to her’ thought Vexahnas. “Well cousin Ulfgar might have been bad enough with explosives to blow his handoff but on my beard I swear he was the best navigator I’ve ever come across. He always told me if you come to a fork in the road, follow the left! So I suppose it’s this way?” Said Flint as he began to move towards the opening.

All of a sudden a new smell filled Vexahnases nose. The scent was coming from the right opening, it smelled like wet earth but had an ever so slight, spice and homely warmth too it. “Flint keep quiet! Can you smell that? Smells like food?” Flint stopped heading for the left opening at once and turned on the spot. He had fashioned the tips of his beard into two long braids which were placed up his nose, ‘must be his method for coping with the smell’ thought Vexahnas. Flint pulled the long braids from his nose and took a deep breath in. “Nope lass, just more of the same. Must be hungry and your minds playing tricks on you, do you want to stop for a bit and eat?” She was hungry but this wasn’t her brain playing tricks, the smell was definitely there. “No. It’s coming from this direction” She said as she made her way to the opening and sniffed again. The smell was their but ever so faintly so she began to descend the right staircase. “Dam Elves” exclaimed Flint. “You’d think you’d not be so stubborn as to not follow the advice of a Dwarf underground!” He moaned as he followed behind her.

Hours passed as they trudged their way down before eventually coming to the end of the staircase. Vexahnas could no longer smell the scent she had before but if it had come from anywhere it was this path. As they stepped into the opening flint began to moan again. “I’m telling you now missy, this isn’t the way! You’ve had me trudging through these dam mouldy caves for days. Contrary to my looks I much prefer the skies you know” he said stopping turning towards her. “Well if you hadn’t been so insistent on taking the tunnels then we would have arrived here with plenty of sand left in the hourglass. I don’t think I need to explain that we don’t have much of that sand to spare so next time just let me teleport us” she said. “No magic! You know I don’t trust the stuff” Said Flint raising a hand and pointing up at her. As he pointed a silence fell between them and Vexahnas realised his face was robbed of its usual cheerful cynicism, instead filled with a mix of what looked like anger and fear.

The silent stare lasted only a few moments until Vexahnas heard the familiar snap of a bow string release and the whistle of a bolt fly through the air. Almost instantly she dropped to one knee, closed her eyes and began to reach into the weave. The Weave, Master Talisman had explained to her, was a kind of magical tapestry that bound together all the planes of existence. Unique, gifted individuals sometimes had the ability to reach out and manipulate the energy which flowed through it to create powerful spells. It was the reason for creation and life but also if used in the wrong hands could cause great, untold levels of destruction. Vexahnas focused, she felt the energy run up from her feet, along her torso, then across her face down to the tips of her long scarlet red hair. She threw her hand upwards creating a wall of magical, blue pulsating energy next to Flints head. A second later a bolt slammed into the barrier ricocheting off and embedding its sharp point into the rock wall besides them.

Flint instantly pulled two flintlock pistols from his chest holster and pointed them in the direction of the shot. “WHO GOES THERE?” he shouted into the shadows “What business do you have in Yeigroth City? Outsiders are not welcome here!” shouted a voice back. Vexahnas felt drained due to the sudden exertion of energy and let the magical wall she had conjured fade. She stood up and looked though the gloom of the underdark. She could just about make out the silhouette of an Elf like creature perched on a rock. “We have no interest in Yeigroth City” She said in a loud but non-threatening manner and began to walk towards the figure on the rock. Master Talisman had told her he had seen this in his vision, if he was right then the figure on that rock was Zee and his sister Lilly was sleeping just below. “We have two important letters to deliver”. “For who?” The voice shouted back as the figure jumped down from the rock and slowly walked towards her. With a confident tone Vexahnas said, “I believe the first one is for you Mr Zee.” The figure continued to walk slightly closer but kept his crossbow trained at her. Now she seemed to have the figures attention Vexahnas continued. “Would you like me to wake your sister up so I can deliver hers in person?” The figure stopped just a few meters from Vexahnas, stared at her for a moment then lowered his crossbow and held out a hand to receive the letter.

Chapter 1: The Tale of Flint Morgan and The Red Letter

Captain Flint Morgan stood with his hand on the Midnight Cannon as he peered out of the stained green glass window to his left. His eyes were tired as he had been up since dawn and now, many hours on with the moon hanging heavy in the night sky, he focused on the bright blue tail of a comet through the glass. The more superstitious folk of West Cross Port called the comet Draco’s Light believing it was Tah-huraz, the female dragon god of destruction, returning to the lands of Talderia to take vengeance on those who had given up on the power of magic in favour of machines and industry. Flint Morgan did not believe this. He knew full well, as all Dwarfs did, that his ancestors had slain the last dragon thousands of years ago in the closing days of the Dark War. The truth was Flint found it hard to believe in anything these days as much like the stories of that war, his life had become dark and full of unlucky turns.

He was only middle aged for a dwarf but he had seen much of Talderia whilst captaining his sky-ship ‘The Cardinal’. He and his crew had started off as honest traders but times grew hard and slowly over the years they went from hauling goods to stealing them. Flint closed his tired eyes and imagined himself standing at the wheel of ‘The Cardinal’. The wind blew though his thick ginger beard and over his face, several pistols where holstered across his chest and at his hip hung a great, jewel encrusted, cutlass that had been forged in the caverns of Glimmer-cairn and handed to him by none other than the Iron Dwarf himself. His crew where readying the cannons as his brother and first mate Silver-Shaft Morgan, barked orders at them. They were about to take a small trading vessel Flint had spied a few hours back. Flint reckoned it would be a good haul.

“OI DWARF!” barked a voice, “DON’T IGNORE ME!” Flint’s eyes snapped back open. He was no longer stood on board his sky-ship nor did he have his jewel encrusted cutlass. That was now just a memory from a better time long ago. He was back stood on top of a stool behind the bar of the Rabbits Foot Inn looking out of the stained green glass window. “You’re about to spill good fucking ale you idiot! I won’t be paying extra if you do, you know that right?” said the voice. Flint looked down and took his hand off the tap of the cask of Midnight Cannon Ale just in time to stop it over-flowing from the tankard. As he placed the tankard on the bar he looked up to see the man who had shouted at him. It was Harkens, one of the local blacksmiths and a regular who had been trying to pick a fight with him for the past few weeks on a count of him being the only dwarf in West Port, but Flint wanted none of it. Since the theft of his sky-ship along with the rest of his wealth Flint had been unable to get work on any other vessels as most knew him as a pirate. He was about to give up and head back to the Dwarven capital when a woman by the name Lizzie Sheers figured him to be a strong enough looking Dwarf and offered him a job at her Inn as long as he caused her no trouble and could change the barrels by himself. The last thing he wanted were the local lawmen poking around because he had killed some nobody in a bar fight. He also remembered his promise to Lizzie that he would make no trouble and he wasn’t about to break that promise. Lizzie was a kind woman who had helped him out when nobody else would, she always laughed and said “Maybe the Rabbits Foot Inn is the just the kind of place you need Flint, they are supposed to be lucky after all!” Besides, the lawmen might recognise him for who he really was and the crime for piracy in Talderia was the hangman’s rope. As he placed the tankard on the bar Flint and Harkens locked eyes in a deathly stare for a few moments, before Harkens slammed down two copper pieces on the bar top, “I told Lizzie she should never have given one of your kind a job here”, with that he spat on the floor, grabbed his drink and stormed back to his table on-which sat the other local blacksmiths.

“Ignore him old friend. A man like that wouldn’t last a day in the sky, not worth your trouble” said a handsome man sat sipping a fine Veraxian whiskey and smoking a short, curved pipe that had been carved from the tusk of some unknown, exotic creature. The man took a long pull of the pipe and exhaled a thick cloud of smoke that left a faint, familiar smell of Apple-wood tobacco hanging in the air. It was Flint’s long time and probably only remaining friend Sebastian Grim. Sebastian was a clean shaven classically handsome man who always had a distant look of mystery and ambition in his eyes. He stood half a foot taller than most men and wore a long, dark green leather duster in which flint knew he concealed many weapons but the greatest one wasn’t in that duster, Sebastian’s greatest weapon was his charm. Not many people knew Flint’s true identity but he trusted Sebastian with his life and trusted him to keep the secret. “Erghhh I know,” sighed Flint “I just wish it was like the old days Seb. Just us in the skies taking what we wanted and making bastards like that take a long walk off a short plank!” Sebastian laughed and relit his pipe, He took another long drag and exhaled again leaving a plume of apple wood scented tobacco in the air. “Well, I may have some good news on that front Flint. I was speaking with the port authorities in Eosveir before I left and they told me that a ship fitting ‘The Cardinals’ description left Linn Sky-port only 2 moons ago heading towards Arkall, it might be our ship Flint?” Flint’s fist clenched tight as he slammed it onto the bar top, “That fucker!” he shouted. “Silver-shafts planning on running spice to those bastards! Not only has he stolen my ship but now my plans to take over the eastern trade routes too! I’ll kill him Seb, I’ll fucking have my brother’s life for this!”. A silence fell between the two friends as they both pondered the next step to getting ‘The Cardinal’ back from Flint’s brother. Sebastian looked for a moment like he was going to say something to try and calm Flint but instead, took another long draw on his pipe and a sip of smooth Veraxian whiskey.

The rest of the night passed quietly, the locals finished drinks one by one and slowly began to leave the Rabbits Foot Inn. Flint was underneath the bar reconnecting some hoses to the taps that had come loose but he could still hear Lizzie and Sebastian talking. She was sweeping the floors and he was helping her put the stalls on the tables. Sebastian didn’t work for the Inn but Flint knew just what his type of woman was and Lizzie was definitely it. Easy on the eye and harder to win over than convincing a cleric of healing that the rash you have absolutely no idea how you could have gotten, is definitely not from the local brothel they just saw you step out from that very morning.  Flint believed though that if any man could win the heart of Lizzie Sheers, it would be Sebastian Grim. Suddenly Flint heard the door to the entrance of the Rabbits Foot Inn creaked open, “Sorry, We’re closing love and the Inns full for the evening” said Lizzie. “Ouh” spoke a soft feminine voice, “I’m not here to drink or acquire a room, I was told by a rather rude and opinionated gentleman that this is the only Inn in West Port that has a dwarf as a barkeep. You do have a dwarf working here don’t you?” Flint instinctively reached to his chest for a pistol as he sensed danger then realised he didn’t have them as Lizzie didn’t let weapons in the bar. Foolish woman, he thought. “Who’s asking?” said Sebastian in a stern yet diplomatic voice, “Well I can quite clearly see you are not a dwarf so I’m afraid I’m not at able to reveal that information however, I can assure you the matter is of great importance for the survival of Talderia” spoke the soft voice.

Elvish thought Flint? The accent had a slight air of Elvish to it but not like he had ever heard before. Flint hated most elves as all Dwarfs did for their cowardice during the Dark War, he wasn’t about to hide from a bastard elf. He slid out from beneath the bar and strode with conviction across the room stopping next to Sebastian and Lizzie. Before the three of them stood a hooded figure in what was once probably a rather elegant sapphire blue robe however now it looked incredibly worn and well-travelled. The white velvet gloves the figure wore had obvious wear marks from the reigns of a horse and her riding boots where laden thick with mud. Looking up Flint spoke confidently, “Aye, I’m that Dwarf you’ve heard so much about, who might you be missy?” The blue robed figure bent down to one knee so she was eye level with flint, her white velvet covered hands pulled back the hood of the robe to reveal the most beautiful face Flint had ever seen. The woman knelt in front of him had all the beauty and elegance of an Elf however, her ears where not as pointed as the ones he had seen before, nor did she have the same arrogance he had seen in eyes of other Elves. Instead they were like two beautiful green pools that seemed to look directly into his soul and make him feel at ease. All of this was framed with a head of long scarlet red hair that autumn leaves braided into it. “My name, Master Dwarf, is Vexahnas Eldrin and I am here to deliver this letter directly from Filbert Talisman the Head of the Old Talderian Mages Guild”. Flint, so distracted by her beauty, didn’t even notice Vexahnas reach into her robe and pull out a red envelope, taking it he looked down at the wax seal which was indeed from the Old Talderian Mages Guild. He broke it open, pulled out the letter inside and began to read it in his head. After just a minute he had read it through twice and could not believe what it contained, he looked back up at Vexahnas and in shock voice asked “Is this true?”, “I don’t know… but if it is, I need your help to gather the others”.