Session Recap week 20: Paved With Good Intentions

“Battles leave scars. Some, you can’t see.”

– Kanan Jarrus

As the party approached the northeastern coast of the island, Rus pointed up towards the wooden palisade Daina had spotted from the unlit beacon.  The path leading to it was overgrown and heavily obscured, but a path it still was, and it seemed to him like the obvious place to begin searching for Tamroth Scrimshaw and Sandara Quinn.  “And where there is a palace,” Trucco piped up, his eyes bright with excitement, “there are clueless rich people we can easily steal from, so I am with Ruskel in that regard!”  Daina let out a laugh in spite of herself.  “No, Trucco, a palisade!”  Rus was not amused by Trucco’s remark.  He reiterated that it seemed to him that the people who were here weren’t maintaining the land, and that was concerning in its own way. 

While Daina agreed that the palisade seemed like the best place to start, Torlan wanted to trek back to the run-down village on the northern end of the island, and Rus conceded that the swamp leading back there was close by.  If they wanted to search the swamp, he allowed, now was the time, and Torlan repeated that the village was indeed where they should begin.  Daina pursed her lips.  “I suspect we’re more likely to find in the village signs of where folks haven’t been than where they have, but it might have a clue.”  If nothing else, she mused, the grindylow might plunder it from time to time if they needed lumber or cloth in a hurry.  Hiding the longboat under some brush and fallen branches, they began following the narrow, brackish river inland as Trucco immediately scrambled into the trees to scout ahead.  With Daina bringing up the rear and the recalcitrant Cloud Reaver “Slippery” Syl between her and Rus, they cut their way through the brush as best they could until Trucco signaled a stop.  He could see a tent that had been secured between some trees — this had to be the same one they’d spotted from the beacon.  Daina sighed.  It was a mystery, but she didn’t think it was going to help them find amphibious creatures.  The ground was soft, and she couldn’t find any sign of the grindylow’s telltale slime trails…but there were barefoot humanoid tracks coming and going from the tent.  As Torlan approached the tent to take a closer look, his senses were assaulted by the stench of cheap perfume mingled with something he had never wanted to know again: the smell of rotting flesh.  Slowly looking up, he could see decomposing skulls hanging from the tree…and as Daina looked over her shoulder to invite the others to come inspect the tracks she’d found, she could see a vaguely humanoid form moving from behind the flap of the tent.  It was headed straight for Torlan.

Jumping to her feet, her hand on her sword, Daina slowly began moving towards the tent.  “We didn’t start this fight,” she shouted, “but we will finish it one way or the other.  You can come out and we can talk, or we’re going to finish it the other way.”  From a different direction, another one of the creatures launched herself out of the jungle at Torlan.  Her unnaturally spindly limbs and sallow skin were barely covered by the tattered remains of dress, her fingers ended in vicious claws, and a long, thin tongue lolled out of her mouth as she ran at Torlan with a wordless, feral scream.  “I’m gettin’ the sense that they’re not negotiatin’, Miss Daina!” Rus hollered as Torlan brought up his halberd in front of him, dispatching the creature with one clean sweep.  Crossing to the other side of the tent, he took a swing at the first one he’d spotted, nearly taking its ear off as it jerked away and screamed at him.  Behind him, Rus pulled Kidù from the holster strapped to his thigh and spoke a command word, sending a purple bolt clean through the creatures neck.  “That was awful close to my scalp!” Torlan yelped.  “Well then that side will match the other!” Daina shouted back.  As Syl drew her crossbow and stood at the ready, Trucco scrambled back up the tree and could see another foe beneath him, running at Torlan again.  Bringing his halberd up in a defensive stance, Torlan began backing away from the creature — but the greater concern at the back of his mind was to move out of Syl’s line of fire, just in case her loyalties shifted again.  As another purple bolt connected with the creature, leaving a small singed burn on its shirt, Torlan used the distraction to skewer his foe with the spiked end of his halberd.  It was a clean kill.  “Is that all of them, Trucco?” he called out.  “Are there any more?”  “Seems clear!” the rogue shouted back as Daina called for everyone to sound off.  

Still clutching her crossbow at the ready, Slippery Syl glared at the nearest corpse.  “What in Khyber was that thing?” she growled.  Squatting down to take a closer look, Daina could see that the creature’s feet matched the tracks she’d found as Torlan asked her and Rus if these bore any resemblance to the undead they’d fought against for years on the Karrnathi front.  They shook their heads in unison; this wasn’t like anything they’d seen before.  Taking a closer look of his own, Torlan knew the creatures for what they were: ghouls, whose primary food was the flesh of the living.  Daina’s hand began seeking out the familiar lines of her tago knife as she tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together.  They had grindylow here who ate people, they had ghouls — who Torlan was saying also ate people — what was the connection here?  Rus shrugged.  “Sometimes, there isn’t one” he quietly replied as he lifted the flap of the tent to take a look inside.  “Hey” he called back over his shoulder, “y’all might want to come take a look at this.”

It wasn’t a large chest, but it was filled to the brim, and at the top was a huge pile of coins in all the denominations of Galifar, including platinum.  “Ah ah ah, Syl!” Torlan smirked, “if you want a share, you’re going to have to join the crew!”  Syl scowled at him, but did not respond.  “You look a little sweatier than normal,” he continued, “is this your first brush with the unnatural?”  Daina stepped forward at that, Syl’s already tenuous cooperation front and center of her mind.  “Easy, Torlan” she said, putting her hand up in a conciliatory gesture.  “What else did you find, Rus?”  He looked at her uneasily.  “There’s a wedding dress in here.  There’s also some alchemist’s fire, I think I found where the smell of that perfume’s coming from, there’s three daggers in here — one of them looks real nice — a hip flask, some gems…”  Ordering everything to be gathered up, for they were going to need whatever money they could find in order to repair the Majestic Gryphon, Daina hesitated.  It didn’t sit right with her to take some poor dead woman’s wedding dress as a prize; it ought to be buried along with her memory.  “That dress is in the Thranish style,” Torlan rumbled.  “See how those rubies are inlaid?  What’s it doing out here in the Principalities?”  Daina frowned.  “I wouldn’t know.  Torlan…you don’t think any of this stuff is actually cursed, do you?”  Hearing that, Trucco dropped the gems he’d begun shoving into his pockets as if they had burnt him.  Taking a closer look, Torlan had no reason to believe a curse had been laid, but this place was giving him the heebie-jeebies all the same.  And, he gently reminded Daina, they would need all this plunder in order to help with the ship’s repairs.  

She looked down, staring at the mud on her boots and the jungle floor, but not seeing any of it.  She wished they didn’t have to be in this position, but he was right.  Perhaps, Torlan consoled her, when all this was over and they returned to the beach, they could figure out what had brought this poor woman to such a fate, and set her soul at ease.  “That would be good” Daina agreed.  Straightening herself up, Captain ir’Lizani got back down to business.  “Now let’s go make sure that’s the only memorial we need to have today.” 

Back in the treetops, Trucco squinted down into the brush.  He was having trouble making out the continuation of the trail, but that wasn’t about to stop him.  “They went this way…no, this way!” he declared, pointing off to the west.  “Did you lose their trail?” Daina called out from the rear.  “No, no!” the rogue insisted.  “I am completely aware of my surroundings!  They went this way!” he pointed.  “Let’s go!”  Falling into line again, the group continued in the direction Trucco had told them to, but after about thirty minutes of travel two things became clear to Daina: first, that they were no longer following any trail at all, and second, looking up at the position of the sun, they were traveling northwest — away from the village.  She called for a halt.  “Trucco, I know this is your area of expertise,” she began, not wanting to exacerbate an already tense situation, “but I don’t think we’re headed in the right direction anymore.  Look—” she pointed up at the sun, “we’re headed northwest.  The village is to the northeast.”  As Trucco tried to dig even deeper into his lie by insisting that he’d meant to do that, Daina tamped down her frustration and assured him that everyone made mistakes.  The best way to fix it was to get back on course.  Traversing the dense jungle was slow going, it was already afternoon, and Daina predicted it would take them another couple of hours to reach the village after they backtracked to the original path.

Before they did that, however, Torlan wanted to see what might lie ahead, or if continuing to the village was the right decision at all.  Taking his harp off his back, he began strumming an Ominous Ode to consult his magics for guidance…and dropped to the ground, motionless.

Torlan!” Daina cried, her eyes going wide as she ran up and dropped to his side.  “Shit! What just happened???”  Cradling one arm under his head and slapping at his face with her free hand, it was several nerve-wracking minutes before the old skald blinked his eyes out of their dead, frozen stare and found himself able to speak again.  “Oh, Khyber” Daina moaned, “I knew this island was cursed!”  Torlan let out a low growl.  “Cursed?  Did one of my strings break?”  Daina stared down at him, unable to hide the fear in her eyes.  “No!  Your harp is fine!  You started playing, and then it sounded awful, and then you just fell!  What were you casting?”  He started shifting around in her arms as his body slowly began responding to his commands again. “It was an Ominous Ode.  I was simply going to divine whether there would be ill before us at this village.”  Daina shook her head, mouth agape — they seemed to have gotten their answer.  “I’m not even sure if it worked,” Torlan replied. “Normally, I remain conscious.  I didn’t get anything useful from this.”  Rus frowned.  “Gotta be a lot of bad energy here.”  Daina’s mind raced; she was out of her element, but desperate to understand what was happening.  “You didn’t get cursed or anything, right?  Nothing…came back to you?”  While Trucco pondered if the island’s curse was the reason he’d gotten the party turned around, Daina helped Torlan to his feet and turned to Rus.  Could he feel anything, any dark energy lingering?  “No, there’s no ambient energy in the air” he replied, “least not what I can feel.  Are you sure you didn’t just play a wrong note or somethin’?”  Daina answered on Torlan’s behalf.  Nothing like this had ever happened before; it had to have something to do with this place.  It was going to take them almost until dusk to get to the village, so if everyone was ready and able, they had to keep moving.

Making their way back east towards the river, Rus could feel the ground becoming concerningly soft, and as the group cut their way through the brush to find themselves on the wrong side of a stretch of river that was even more brackish than it had been in the south, and held up his hand to call a halt.  He could feel the telltale signs of quicksand beneath his feet.  The river was narrow and shallow, but fording it on foot was a dangerous proposition.  Daina came up beside him and considered their options.  Trucco’s first instinct was to take to the trees; could he set a rope above the river for them to shimmy across?  It would take less time than cutting down a tree to serve as a bridge, and wouldn’t dull Rus’ hand axe in the process.  As she continued running through their options, the sound of splintering wood exploded behind her and a tree came crashing down across the water.  Sidestepping out of its path, Daina turned to see Rus standing a few feet from the stump, wand in hand, and let a small smile slip as she nodded approvingly.  “Timber” he declared, hopping up onto the bridge with a grin and leading the way across.  As the others began following him under Daina’s watchful eye, she felt the dragonmark wrapped around her right eye begin to burn, accompanied by a surge of unfamiliar energy radiating through her body.  She hadn’t realized until then that she’d been feeling tapped out in a way that had nothing to do with her body or mind, but she couldn’t put her finger on what had changed, and if it wasn’t hurting or hindering her in any way, now was not the time to wonder about it.

After about two more hours, they came to a break in the trees as the jungle gave way to a swath of beach.  Taking his bearings from where the Majestic Gryphon was moored off the coast, Rus led the group down the coast with Daina urging everyone to keep to cover and not advertise their approach.  She could tell that Rus’ patience was wearing thin, especially after Trucco’s little detour taking them off the trail, and the issue was only compounded when the overconfident rogue caught his foot on a large tree root, painfully wrenching his ankle.  While the injury wasn’t enough to stop Trucco, it was going to slow him.

As they drew closer, it seemed the search party had hit a dead end.  Many of the huts dotting the village were collapsed, and there were no sounds or smells coming from it to indicate any signs of life, or even any recent activity.  “Well,” Torlan sighed, this may cost us.”  “It may” Daina agreed, as Rus asked what they meant by that.  She sighed again.  They were here now, so they might as well do a quick sweep of it — ten minutes tops, just enough to confirm what was immediately visible, and then reassess where to go next.  

The village wasn’t only lacking signs of recent use — it appeared to have been abandoned for years.  The only thing of note that Daina could immediately find was a trail leading from the southern end of the huts off into the jungle.  Scanning back towards the beach, she made a promising discovery: a series of boot prints leading from the beach to the trailhead.  “Okay” Daina called out to the others, “this wasn’t a dead end after all.  This could be Sandara and Scrimshaw’s trail right here.  Maybe they got away from the grindylow; we’ve got boot prints headed into the jungle—”  Without waiting to hear another word, Rus took off down the trail as fast as he could.

“Rus!” Daina shouted after him.  “Do not stray ahead!  Stay with the group; we don’t know what’s in there!” 

He did not stop, turn, or slow down.  Daina let out a loud curse as she chased him down and grabbed his shoulder, her fingers digging in forcefully.  That did stop him in his tracks.  

Daina stops Rus from running recklessly ahead.
Daina stops Rus from running recklessly ahead.

“Rus,” Daina said, her voice firm, steady, and slipping back into the tone and cadence she’d used as Mazello’s unofficial second in command, “we are going down this path.  We are finding them, and we are finding them together.  It will not serve them, or you, or any of us for you to go off on your own trying to be a big damn hero.”

Her hand rose and fell as he took a deep breath in and out and squared his shoulders.  His head bobbed up and down in a firm nod.  “Aye aye, Captain.”  Adjusting her grip on his shoulder, but not letting go, Daina shifted around to come face to face with Rus.  Her eyes softened as she met his; she’d seen that look too many times before.  Stress, anger, and fear, all locked in battle with the training he was now fighting to replace them with.  “Just keep breathing,” she said softly.  “One foot in front of the other, soldier.”  Gently letting go of his shoulder, she remained in his path, not prepared to move forward without knowing that the crisis had passed.

“I know,” he murmured.  “Sorry. I got a bit ahead of myself there for a second.”  She nodded but kept her eyes on his.  “I know.  Happens to the best of us.  You good?”  He nodded again.  “I’m good.”  “Alright,” she told him, stepping to one side of the narrow path and gesturing into the jungle.  “Lead the way.”

As the trail led deeper into the swamp, it became clear to Rus that only one person had passed this way, and to make matters worse, the ground had become too soft to hold any more tracks.  “Why are we stopping?” Daina called out from the rear of the column.  “What did you find?”  Rus swore under his breath and made a frustrated gesture sweeping out in front of him.  “The tracks just end.”  Daina came up behind him.  How fresh were the tracks?  “Less than a day old” he replied.  There was no sign that whoever they were following had veered off the path, and with no other options, they followed it until they returned to the river.  This section was dotted with a series of pylons that indicated the presence of a bridge some time in the past, but the pylons were too far apart to safely walk across.  That was Trucco’s cue.  Daina handed him the coil of rope that was in her pack, and he added it to his own to secure a line over the river that they could swing across.  After another fourty-five minutes of travel through the jungle, they found themselves back on the beach where they had landed.  

The sun was low on the horizon; Daina figured they had another ninety minutes of light at the most.  On the far side of the beach sat an overgrown field that hadn’t been worked in years, and on the ridge above them, the wooden palisade they had originally honed in on but set aside in favour of the village.  “I think we split up” Torlan declared.  “One person goes there—” he gestured at the field “and meets the rest up at the palisade.”  Daina shook her head.  “I don’t think that unworked, overgrown field is going to give us much more than the village did.  I say we stick together and go up the ridge.”  Torlan’s face grew dark.  “We should split up” he repeated.  “We should have covered more ground from the get-go.”  “We should have been,” Rus agreed, “but we don’t have any way to communicate with each other.  We’ve already gotten into one fight.”  Torlan was determined.  He would run ahead, investigate the field, and meet back up with the others when he was done.  With the rapidly dwindling daylight and the conversation she’d just had with Rus about not separating the group fresh in her mind, Daina stuck to her own guns.  Like Rus had said, they had no way to communicate if Torlan found anything — or got in trouble — and running ahead alone just opened up the door for having one more person in need of a rescue.  Either they were all going to the field together, or they were all going to the ridge together.       

“Every minute counts here, Daina” Torlan growled.  “I know” she replied.  Rus interrupted their standoff.  He could fire off a signal flare from his wand.  If someone had to split off from the group, he was the best candidate.  As Daina took in this new information, Torlan announced that he would go with Rus.  It was clear that the old dwarf wasn’t backing down.  “How long should I wait for your signal?” Daina asked Rus.  “Sundown” he replied.  “If the sun goes down and you haven’t seen a signal yet, we’re in trouble.”  Before parting, Rus revealed to Daina that he could control the colour of his flares, and to watch for his signal: green meant they were all clear and on their way back, yellow meant they had found something but were not in distress, and a red flare would be a call for help.

Approaching the edge of the field, Rus caught sight of a pole in the middle with a round object impaled on it, and off to the side Torlan spotted a giant crab coming right towards him.  “What’s the plan, Ruskel?” he called out as a second crab appeared to flank them.  As a bolt for Rus’ wand came flying past Torlan’s ear to stagger the nearest crab — quickly dispatched by a swing of the old dwarf’s halberd — the second one put up a half-hearted fight before scuttling away, its hopes of an easy meal dashed.  With the immediate danger taken care of, Rus moved deeper into the field…and it became clear that the object perched on the top of a makeshift scarecrow was someone’s rotting head.  It was too old to belong to one of their friends, but still disturbing.  Torlan rumbled that they should still take advantage of investigating even if the person who had made the scarecrow didn’t live there anymore.  Besides which, he wouldn’t be scared off.  He wasn’t scared at all. “Oh no, no, no” Rus assured him, “I don’t get the impression that you’re scared at all.  You are the face of bravery.  If they carved a mountain, it would be—” “It would look nothing like that scarecrow!” Torlan growled.  “It would be called the Face of Bravery” Rus continued.  He took another few steps forward before coming to a stop.  They were both exhausted from the long day and their most recent fight, and if there was anything to be found here, it was getting too dark to do so.  Perhaps it was time to regroup with the others.

Up on the ridge, Daina and the others had made it about halfway up before a blood-curdling scream of pain and terror floated down from high above them.  It seemed that they had reached their destination at last…and that they might be too late.  

Behind the Scenes

  • Question of the week:  choose one of your flaws or hindrances and describe how you came by it, and why you might be holding onto it. I have been informed that I was uncharacteristically talking a mile a minute while answering this question…and that sounds about right, because Hindrances might still be my favourite thing about Savage Worlds.
  • Both Rus and Trucco started this session at a disadvantage: by choosing not to rest before going on this mission, Rus carried one point of Fatigue for the entirety of it, and Trucco carried two points of Fatigue for 3/4 of the session before the one imposed by using his shifting ability too much in too short a time naturally faded. By the end, Rus had picked up a second point of Fatigue of his own from failing to roll a raise in the Quick Encounter with the crabs, making him Exhausted, and Torlan now has a level of Fatigue from the same encounter. Here’s what this all means in layman’s terms:
    • Each level of Fatigue imposes a -1 penalty to all trait rolls, up to a total of -2. Fatigue stacks, and if a character takes on a third level, they become Incapacitated and cannot perform any actions and may even be unconscious at the GM’s discretion.
    • How Fatigue is recovered from depends on the source. Unless otherwise specified, it improves one level per hour. In Rus’ case, both of his levels of Fatigue come from Bumps & Bruises, which is how injuries that aren’t severe enough to be considered Wounds are quantified. The good news is that Fatigue incurred from Bumps & Bruises can be relieved with a successful Healing roll.
  • Torlan critically failed the spellcasting roll for his Ominous Ode, earning him a trip to the Dynamic Backlash table. Like the Creative Combat table we use for Tests, Dynamic Backlash is a SWADE core optional setting rule that spices things up. However, where Creative Combat is used to reward success, Dynamic Backlash is a consequence of failure. Again, the good news is that this didn’t happen during a combat encounter, or things could have been much worse!
    • Regarding Ominous Ode, there have been a few questions from readers and listeners about that: it’s how Michael flavours the Augury power which we borrowed from D&D 5e as divination magic is pretty limited in Savage Worlds.
  • Rus having no time for mundane lumberjacking and unleashing a Magic Missile on the tree instead wasn’t just good roleplaying — it was also our first run-in with breaking objects in Savage Worlds! The core rules include listed Hardness for some common objects (light doors, heavy doors, chains, etc.), but also specify that most objects can be broken given enough time and effort, so to only have a character roll damage against an object’s Hardness if there is a time crunch (such as during combat or some other narrative scenario). Damage rolls against objects can’t Ace, which makes breaking them on a clock much more difficult. In this case, though there was no immediate time crunch, Phillip called for a roll because Rus wasn’t using the right tool for the job, but also employed some Rule of Cool because it was, indeed, cool.
  • The “unfamiliar energy” and strange sensation in her dragonmark that Daina felt after Torlan’s spell backlash was how I narrated spending a bennie to regain five Power Points.
  • At this table, we borrow Edges, Powers, and Hindrances from other settings as needed to support the story and characters, and the confrontation between Rus and Daina after he rushed ahead into the jungle alone was Kevin’s first opportunity in this campaign to play into one we borrowed from Deadlands: Weird West and reflavoured a little: Nightmares. As written, a character suffering from Nightmares is tormented every night, tossing and turning and possibly waking others up with his screams. While the Hindrance itself was appealing, Kevin didn’t see that last part as being conducive to living on a ship, so how he flavours Rus’ Nightmares is that Rus does sleep fitfully, but more in the way that sleep is restless when you are sick, and that he is almost surprised when he wakes up. The mechanical result of this constant state of tiredness and having his psyche attacked every time he goes to sleep is a -1 to all his Spirit rolls. However, as a primarily ranged fighter, Rus has not been Shaken yet (which is where Spirit rolls most commonly occur), nor has he had to make a Fear check or anything similar. So this Hindrance has been sitting on a slow burn for nineteen weeks…until now.

    When Daina caught up with Rus, physically interrupted him, and started trying to talk him down and lay down the law at the same time, Kevin broke character to ask if I would be willing to do some PvP. My gut reaction, aside from surprise that he’d ask for that, was a resounding “hell no.” I do not believe in PvP as a way to resolve getting something another player does not want to give you. However, he quickly explained that what he meant by “PvP” in this case wasn’t an altercation or an attempt at taking something by force; rather, what he was asking was if I would perform a Test against him to help him understand and decide how to play out this particular character flaw of Ruskel’s. And an Intimidation or Persuasion Test is opposed by the defender’s Spirit. With the framing of this Test as a roleplaying tool to resolve the conflict, I eagerly agreed to help him explore this part of Rus in this way…and with my 7 on the die vs. his 2 (after the -1 penalty from Nightmares), I effectively had a success with a raise on convincing Rus to calm down. It was an amazing scene that also helped me explore an emerging part of Daina, which I’d been already working at with Tamroth during the mutiny and Slippery Syl afterwards: the idea that her leadership style is to believe in the people under her command, trust in them, and give them opportunities to shine and take ownership of their actions even if those actions are being done at her orders. So being given this scene to talk Rus down forcefully, gently affirm his stress and fear, and then tell him to take point as a way of saying “I know you’re good for it” was a gift to me as a player as well. During the Twogether Studios panel at the last PAX Unplugged (a panel Kevin and I attended in person!), B. Dave Walters spoke about how while it is a GM’s responsibility to set up moments for the PCs to shine, it is also the players responsibility to set up those moments for each other. This moment was a perfect example of Kevin putting B. Dave’s advice into action.
  • Rus’ signal flare was him making use of Savage Pathfinder‘s rules for cantrips. Cantrips are not something that need to be declared ahead of time, but minor spells that any character with an arcane background can roll for as long as the desired effect is based on one of their existing powers. Kevin and I had previously discussed the concept of arcane signal flares in a completely unrelated discussion, and this session wound up providing a great time to bring that concept into this campaign. It was an on-the-spot discussion between him and Phillip, easily adjudicated, and I think very on point for a former airman — and the ability to signal between ships, or ship-to-shore, will more than likely come in handy in the future!

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