The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘in the shadow of the spire’


Character Background: Tor

Adding new players to a successful campaign can be really tricky. It doesn’t take much to muck up the strange alchemy that makes for a great group, and that doesn’t even take into account “real world” concerns like discovering that scheduling which was previously hassle-free has stumbled into a nightmare of subtly conflicting schedules that form a real impediment to actually playing.

Auditioning players can help weed out some of these problems. I know some groups will “audition” the new players by just adding them to the existing campaign as a trial run, but I’ve found that this generally causes more problems than it solves. (Even if you manage to cleanly break with a player who’s not working out, you still end up having to deal with the jagged edges of continuity left from introducing a new PC and then, even more importantly, writing them out.) I prefer running a one-shot completely separate from the campaign (although perhaps set in the same campaign world) or even a short mini-campaign that lasts two or three sessions. It allows you to assess how the chemistry of the group will work out, without disturbing the primary campaign in any way.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, of course, an open table is a big help here, largely because a successful open table will leave you with a surfeit of qualified candidates who you’re often eager to play with in a dedicated campaign. There’s no guesswork in determining whether or not someone is a good player because you’ve already seen them play; in fact, you’ve probably already seen them play with the other members of the campaign.

Keeping the difficulties in mind, however, in practice, I just don’t do it. Most of my campaigns sit five players. I generally don’t like going above that number, and if I lose a player (for whatever) reason I’m generally more comfortable letting the number of players slip to four or even three. (This is particularly true with more typical campaigns of 15-25 sessions. Usually easier to just power through to the end.)

Nonetheless, in this session of my Ptolus campaign I found myself adding two new players. I’ve described the reasons for this previously. In brief: Due to the events in Session 7, one of the original long-distance players (Agnarr) had decided to quit; the second long-distance player (Alysta, who had already been having scheduling problems) decided it was a good opportunity to also drop out; and the third long-distance player (Ranthir) had become more-or-less local.

As we regrouped in October 2007, two new players would fill the empty chairs and bring with them two new characters: Tor and Elestra.


Let’s start with the more traditional addition.

Although I didn’t “audition” either of the new players, I had literally auditioned one of them: She played the role of Abigail Adams in the 2007 production of my play John and Abigail. If I recall correctly, she had not played RPGs before, but was intrigued by the whole concept after chatting about the campaign after rehearsal one night.

I offered her the option of picking up either of the characters who had been abandoned, but as this was her first time at the rodeo she was interested in getting the full experience by creating her own character. Thus was born Master Torland Mank.

This actually ended up being, unintentionally, a great thing for the campaign. Introducing a character who was not directly tied into the mystery of the group’s lost memories ended up pulling the campaign in directions it otherwise would not have gone and anchoring it in ways that, in retrospect, were absolutely essential. Without Tor, it’s likely that everything else the group encountered would have continued playing a second fiddle to the overriding concern of what had happened to them, and much of value would have been lost.

And because Tor’s player was, in fact, fabulous, the roleplaying revolving around Tor’s introduction to the group was amazing (as you’ll see over the course of the next few campaign journals).

So, that’s lesson one here: When looking to add a new character to the campaign, try to find a new dynamic. Add something that the group doesn’t already have — a different perspective on the world, a different social class, a different set of goals, a different set of problems. (At a crude, mechanical level, a different set of abilities.) All of these things should obviously complement the existing group, but in adding a new character you have an opportunity to make the campaign richer than it was before, so take advantage of that.

This applies just as much to a new character created by an existing player.

(We’ve all seen those TV shows where an actor leaves and they replace them with a “new” character is actually just filling the same functional role as the old one, right? And we know that never works, right? The new guy is always just the slightly suckier version of the previous character? Right. So don’t do that.)

Another tricky thing to consider when adding a new PC is the hook: How do they get introduced and (even more importantly) how do they get pulled into the group?

In most cases, even if you completely screw this up the metagame will paper over the gaping cracks: Everybody knows that this is Peter’s new character, so they’ll just kind of “naturally” accept him as part of the group. But it is, in fact, this sort of “go with the flow” tendency which, for me, makes it even more important to not have it be that simple; to have the new addition to the group make sense in character.

(This is also something you can fiendishly invert: Next time Peter needs to roll up a new character, instead ask him to take on the role of an NPC that’s planning to infiltrate the party and betray them for one reason or another. The eventual revelation may do irreparable damage to the group’s metagame trust of the next PC to show up, but it’s worth it.)

In the case of Tor, as you can see in the campaign journal, I was able to take advantage of the PCs’ lost memories to just literally have them hire him. This tied him loosely to the central mystery of the campaign, obviously, and (now that I think about it) kind of hung a lampshade on the whole “of course we trust this guy, it’s Sarah’s new character” thing.

(In point of fact, as you’ll see in the next journal entry, they did not fully trust Tor and ended up concealing their lost memories from him. This is all for the good. A little intra-party friction is good stuff.)


Elestra’s player was also new to the table, but her character was slightly more unusual. I’ve discussed this in greater detail in the past, but basically Elestra was originally a character named Alysta. And I retconned the campaign so that Alysta was written out and Elestra had been there all along.

I’d never done anything like this before, haven’t done it since, haven’t heard of anyone else who has done it, and will probably never do it again myself.

The reason I did it was relatively straightforward: I’d designed a mystery basically starring these five characters — Agnarr, Tee, Dominic, Ranthir, and Alysta. There was no logical way for Alysta to decide to just… leave. (For a similar reason, Ranthir’s player took on the role of Agnarr and has played both characters simultaneously ever since.)

The existence of a detailed campaign journal actually made this relatively easy: I spent an afternoon or so rewriting the existing campaign journal, replacing all references to Alysta with Elestra. This not only created a new “canon” for the campaign that everyone could agree upon, it also made it easy for Elestra’s player to catch up on all the things that “she” had experienced.

This worked surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that the group basically forgot all about Alysta. I think I speak for all of us when I say that when we think back to the early days of the campaign, we think of them as if Elestra had been there. Until writing this essay, in fact, I don’t think I’d thought about the name “Alysta” in close to a decade. Even Elestra’s player discusses the events of the first seven sessions of the campaign as if she had actually experienced them.

Beyond that, I don’t really have any general lessons to take from this, though: It was kind of a wacky idea. Despite the fact that, against all odds, it somehow worked, I wouldn’t really recommend it as something you should try.

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire



You grew up in the duchy of Anathor in the kingdom of Barund. Your father was a Royal Equiner, meaning that he possessed a royal license for the “right and true breeding of noble steeds”. The patents of lineage and seals of training which he controlled gave him the right to breed, break, and train horses suitable for the royal orders of knighthood. (He also did considerable business with the major and minor orders within Anathor.)

(Anathor is located in southern Barund, on the border between Barund and Arathia. The orders of knighthood can be roughly divided into three varieties: The royal orders, the major orders, and the minor orders. Similarly, equiners can be divided into three varieties: Royal Equiners, Noble Equiners, and Common Equiners. The only honor your father lacked was a gilted patent, which would have allowed him to breed and train horses for the royal family, the three Orders of the Lion, and other members of the highest nobility.)

While your father lived, you and your brother Ny shared in the work. Ny took to the trade work – the books, negotiation of sales, and the like – and also had a fine understanding of the intracies of royal breeding and patentage. You, on the other hand, came to love working with the horses themselves. Above all, you treasured the work of coraling and breaking and training wild horses – the creation of new lineages.

These new lineages were rarely of the sort that would appeal to your noble clients, but there was no shame in extending the work of your family to include plough-horses, militia mounts, and caravan haulers.

You married at 15 and have three children – first a boy (Jareth) and then twin daughters (Mila and Jaspin). Your wife, Fera, died a year after delivering the girls. Jareth is now 17 and takes after you. Mila was married this year to a silversmith. Jaspin shows no interest in marrying at all, but has a natural head for business. Ny and Jareth now run the family business, and Jaspin keeps the books.

All through your life, tales from across the world have reached your ears: Caravan masters out of Arathia would tell stories gathered from their trade. Nobles would share the pomp and glamour of their tournaments. Knights would speak of their acts of glory. The wanderers trading in wild horses from the Borderlands would tell tall tales from beyond the mountains. Even the farmers would share their myths and legends.

These tales always seemed distant and removed, but with the passing years you began to wonder if that meant they out of reach… or if it simply meant that they needed to be reached for.

Now at the age of 33, with the corners of your life tucked away and the legacy of your father well-secured, anything seems possible. You had often wondered if you might some day achieve knighthood, and a few months ago you decided to pursue some of the tales you’ve heard. You began teaching yourself how to read, and you also reached out to the many friends you’ve made through the years (knights, nobles, caravan masters and the like) to ask them what you should do.

The most likely course that seemed to emerge was the Arathian city-state of Ptolus. It lay on the coast of the Southern Sea, and for a few years now stories had drifted to your ears of fabulous treasures hidden in mammoth caverns and labyrinthine mazes beneath the city. There were even tales of an entire guild specializing in exploring those ancient places. If there was anywhere in the world where adventure and deeds of daring could be had, it seemed to be Ptolus.

You began laying careful plans – the type of careful planning with which you’ve approached everything in your life. But then things started happening very quickly: A letter arrived from a man named Ritharius.

Master Tor—

I recently shared the road with Sir Robilard of the Order of the Chalice, a man I believe to be our mutual acquaintance. He gave me to understand that you have recently become interested in a life of more interesting pursuits, and that you were pursuing inquiries into such matters.

It so happens that I myself have some small connection to these things, and would be honored to extend my introductions – upon Sir Robilar’s good report – for you.

I have a party of associates currently lodging at the Ghostly Minstrel in the Midtown of Ptolus. They have some need of a strong left arm, and if you were to present yourself to them before the end of Amseyl, I have been given to understand that they would have some employment for you in a direction you might find favorable. Their names are Dominic, Agnarr, Elestra, Tee, and Ranthir.


First Day of Amseyl

It seemed impossible not to accept such an invitation. Certainly no clearer path could have been laid for you. You rapidly finished your preparations, finished what little business still required your attention, made your proper farewells to your family, and – finally – selected your favorite mount (a true steed named Blue). On the 15th of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty you set out. It took you four days to cross the Aliyan and reach the city-state of Duvei, but from there you made quick time upon the trade roads. You reached the coast of the Southern Sea on the 22nd, and spent a long time gazing out from the sea cliffs there. Then you followed the coast road south along the outskirts of Moonsilver Forest and across the plains south of there, until you saw the famous Spire of Ptolus crest the horizon before you.

On the 24th of Amseyl, you reached Ptolus’ North Gate, passing by the tournament fields that lay just outside the wall. For a long time you could do nothing but stare up at the almost unimaginable and utterly unnatural grandeur of the Spire, but you eventually focused your mind upon your task. Following North Gate Road took you down into Midtown, and from there you made your way by Center Street to Delver’s Square and the Ghostly Minstrel.

A woman named Tellith greeted you as you passed through the front doors of the inn. She said that Dominic, Agnarr, and the others had left early that morning, but were likely to be back soon. She directed you to the common room, and you settled down to wait…


All the orders of knighthood in Barund follow the Code of Law as laid down in the Book of Athor, adhere to the Martial Code as laid down in the Book of Itor, and honor the Seven Compassions as laid down in the Book of Crissa.

The Code of Law is your bedrock “thou shalt not” stuff: Don’t murder, steal, enslave your brother, and so forth. The Martial Code is your standard chivalric ideal: Face your opponent fairly and honorably.

The Seven Compassions are a bit more philosophically complex, and are also referred to in some commentaries as the Seven Cares. The compassions are of the self, the companion, the stranger, the task, the thought, the memory, and the true. In other words, care for yourself, for your companions, and for strangers. Take care with what you do, what you think, and how it shall be remembered. And if you can do all that, then you will know true compassion. (For most people, the Seven Compassions boil down to “be nice to people” and “think before you act”.)

Within these broad boundaries, the various orders will have their own eccentricities. For example, the Order of the Holy Sword (a minor order in the duchy of Anathor) is marked by a zealous devotion to the Deeds of Honor as described in the Book of Itor. (The Deeds are a collection of legendary tales, but can also be boiled down into a kind of “scorecard” or exemplar of heroic actions. “He lives his life by the deeds of honor” is a common saying in Barund.)

As may be obvious from the fact that their core ethos is drawn from the religious texts of the Church, the orders of knighthood have a strong religious component to their ideology. This prompts a quick discussion about religion in Barund:

The Twenty Year War triggered a religious schism within the Imperial Church. After Seyrun invaded Barund, the king refused to acknowledge the Edicts of the Novarch (as these edicts were closely associated with imperial power in Seyrun). An outright refutation of the Novarch, however, would have put the king on somewhat shaky ground: For six centuries, the Line of Kings has been recognized and legitimized as a divine bloodright dating back to the Holy Coronation performed by the Novarch in 127 YD. So what the king did, while continuing to acknowledge the Novarch as the Living Voice of the Nine Gods, was to declare the Novarch to have no secular or religious authority over the lands controlled by the divine bloodright of the Barundian royal family.

Now, the supreme leader of the Church in Barund has always been the Prelate of Barund. The Prelate of Barund, appointed by the Novarch, has authority over the regional prelates of the Church throughout Barund. The king of Barund, on the authority of his divine bloodline, promptly appointed his own Prelate of Barund. So, even today, there are two Prelates of Barund: One appointed by the King and the other appointed by the Novarch.



Session 8A: Waking in Chains

In which unfortunate bargains are made in caverns deep beneath the city, and our intrepid heroes learn not to look a gift mobster in the mouth…

This session begins with the PCs waking up in chains after a disastrous battle.

There are several ways I could have handled this particular moment:

  • I could have had all the characters wake up simultaneously.
  • I could have arbitrarily chosen the order in which they would wake up.
  • I could use some sort of mechanical resolution to determine how they would wake up.
  • I could have had one of the character(s) get woken up by the bad guys.
  • I could have the character(s) wake up by themselves.

Seems like a relatively simple crux — and I don’t want to suggest that I spent a lot of time staring at my navel on this one — but the ways in which you resolve moments like this can have a surprisingly large impact as the consequences of that moment ripple out.

FettersFirst things first: I felt it was more interesting for the PCs wake up on their own. Why? Well, if they wake up on their own they have an opportunity to take actions (or choose not to take actions) which would no longer be available to them once the bad guys engaged with them. Conversely, anything interesting that might happen from the point where the bad guys wake them up would probably end up happening even if they did wake up first.

When in doubt, go for the option with a larger number of potentially interesting outcomes. (Particularly if you’re not giving anything up to do it.)

Beyond that, I decided to turn to fictional cleromancy: I made a mechanical ruling and let it determine the order in which the PCs would wake up. (In this case, margin of success on a Listen check with a relatively low DC. As the characters woke up, they were then allowed to make Bluff checks to keep the bad guys from realizing they were awake.)

Couldn’t I — as the GM — have made a better decision myself?

Different, certainly. But better? Probably not. If I had arbitrarily decided for myself, I’d probably have chosen Tee to wake up first (since she would be the best positioned to stealthily slip her bonds). That would have potentially given a big, splashy scene. But when the cleromancy selected Dominic, the scene instead gave a quiet opportunity to spotlight a character who often just “went along with the group”. And although the choice to patiently wait and see what would happen might seem like a “non-choice”, it was actually very revealing of Dominic’s personal character (both to the table as a whole and, I think, to Dominic’s player).

Which is why I encourage GMs to trust the fictional cleromancy.

It’s important, of course, to properly set the stakes for any mechanical resolution and to make sure that you (and the rest of the table) will be satisfied with the possible outcomes. There’s no reason to let the mechanics drive you into a wall.

But, in my experience, games are much, much better when you set them free and see where they’ll take you. They’ll surprise and amaze you and create moments you never could have imagined happening in a thousand years.

You can see a couple other examples of this general sort of thing in the current campaign journal. First, resolving Agnarr’s Sense Motive check to notice that his friends had been brainwashed on a graduated scale led to his hilarious attempt to conspire with Elestra.

Second, in the back half of this session, Agnarr attempts to locate a stray dog to make his own… and abysmally fails his Animal Handling check. (Resulting in me describing him giving the dog iron rations, which the dog did not like at all.)

Why not just Default to Yes and let him have the dog? Gut instinct more than anything else. Getting the dog seemed important to the character, and I felt it would be more appreciated if it had to be worked for. It paid off: Failing to attract stray dogs became a running joke for several sessions, and when Agnarr finally did find his dog, the moment was more meaningful for the path that had been walked to get there.

All of this is an art, not a science.


Something else to note in this session, particularly in the wake of the near-TPK in the previous session, is how the group adjusted their tactics for underwater fights. Most notably, they made a point of making sure that they stuck together even when disparate results on Swim checks would have driven them apart. And you can see the payoff as they mopped up a whole sequence of combat encounters.

They learned from their mistakes and they learned from their failure.

There’s a branch of GMing philosophy which is basically terrified of the PCs failing at something. And I don’t just mean avoiding TPKs: They can never lose any fight. Every quest must be a success. No clue can ever be missed. No mystery can ever remain unsolved. No personal goal can be frustrated.

There are a couple of major problems with this philosophy.

First, you are eliminating a huge swath of the human experience (and drama!) from your games. Go watch a movie. Read a book. Reflect on how often the main characters are thwarted; suffer setbacks; get stymied. Look at how those failures are used to raise the stakes, drive the story forward, and frame new scenes — scenes that can’t exist if failure isn’t an option.

Second, when you never allow someone to make a mistake, they never learn that they’re doing something wrong.

If you spend any amount of time in RPG discussion groups, you’ll perennially come across GMs complaining that, for example, their players always rush headlong into every fight even when they’re clearly outnumbered and outgunned.

Do you ever let them lose those fights?

Of course not!

Well… I’ve spotted your problem.

Here the group had a problem with underwater combat. They suffered horrendous consequences. And then they fixed the problem.

This is a general theme you’ll see throughout these campaign journals: Not only characters (and their players) refining their strategic and tactical choices, but also figuring how to approach problems from new angles and with alternative solutions when their first options don’t work.

Failure is, in my experience, the root of creativity.


Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire



October 7th, 2007
The 24th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

Dominic woke to the cold taste of iron on his wrists. His hands had been chained above his head. He could hear people moving around him – the sounds echoed oddly. There was cold stone under him and against his back. He could feel that his wounds had been bound, but there was little strength in his limbs and it seemed as if every muscle and bone ached.

Dominic surreptitiously opened his eyes and looked around, trying not to attract attention to the fact that he had woken up. He saw that his companions had been chained up next to him (although it seemed as if Ranthir remained free). They were all in a damp cave of some sort, half of which appeared to be an underground lake. One of the serpentine creatures was just coming out of the Ptolus - Malkeen Balacazarwater, hauling a wooden crate to join a stack of similar crates. Several human workers were breaking the crates open and inspected small packages inside. He also saw a large adrak (a lizardman) with its back criss-crossed with scars and dozens of bells tied to him in a variety of ways. There were also several exits from the room: Two by way of water, a dry tunnel in one direction, and an iron door set into the wall in the other.

A man and woman were standing nearby, perhaps ten or fifteen feet away. The man was wearing robes of blue and white, with a hood that loosely covered his brown hair. He had handsome features made all the more striking by the star-burst tattoo emblazoned over his right eye. He was saying: “I didn’t want to interfere with it. When I looked at what it was doing… Well, the black tendrils were beautifully woven. I wasn’t sure what it was doing, so I left it and came back up to meet you. I thought for sure that you’d have some insight into it, Gattara. You have such a gift for such things.”

The obese woman next to him giggled, trying too hard to be attractive. “Flattery will win you everything.” She wore make-up an inch deep and gaudy Ptolus - Gattara Vladaamjewelry galore. Intricate curls of thick, red hair fell down across a bloated face of mascara and blush.

The man spoke again: “Hmm… But now she seems to have escaped. Which rather complicates things.”

The woman answered: “I’m sure it’s nothing that can’t be overcome.”

Agnarr groggily awoke just in time to hear the last of this exchange. Like Dominic he did his best to feign sleep, and it seemed to succeed (although Dominic realized his friend had awakened as well).

It made little difference, though, because the man said: “Na’haras, wake them up.”


Interlude: Visions on the Edge of the Void

In which lost memories return as the party lingers on the edge of oblivion…

Snape's Flashback

As I mentioned in the last installment of Running the Campaign, the near-TPK in Session 7 led to the lengthy break which resulted in the campaign’s Retcon.

When the campaign started back up, I decided to kick things off with the visions described in this installment of the campaign journal. If I recall correctly, I e-mailed these visions to the players a few days before the session to gin up anticipation. I also printed out individual copies so that the players could review them at the beginning of the session, with the joint-but-separate cliffhanger at the end of each vision leading directly to the first moment of Session 8.

In addition to simply getting people excited about playing again, I also wanted to make an experience which had ended up being unexpectedly traumatic and significant to the group in the real world an equally significant milestone for the characters, and I hoped that these visions would help drive home how close to real and meaningful death the PCs had come.

The actual visions themselves, however, were not created for this particular moment. They had been designed before the campaign ever began.


The campaign began with the PCs experiencing a period of “lost time”. I took extra efforts to make sure that the players really felt this missing gap in their lives, because the things which had happened to them during that time were really significant.

The next step was to make sure that this missing time continued to be significant to them throughout the campaign, so that it wouldn’t just fade into “something that happened awhile back and isn’t really significant any more”. One way of doing this, as I’ve described previously, was to create a meta-scenario featuring a mix of investigating the past and also consequences from the past coming back into the oblivious lives of the PCs.

The other way I decided to keep the “lost time” as a pervasive factor throughout the campaign was through the use of flashback visions: Glimpses that the PCs would have into their lost memories. These visions were carefully excerpted from the “secret history” I had prepared regarding the period of lost time, and would hopefully also tie-in with the various meta-scenarios revolving around that lost time. (The idea was to create synergy between multiple tracks running persistently throughout and behind the other adventures of the PCs.)


The triggers for these flashbacks were intentionally designed flexibly. (And most flashbacks had multiple triggers.) They generally weren’t things like, “During Adventure #5 when X happens, the PCs receive this vision.” Instead it was, “If something kind of like this happens, it’ll probably cause the PC to flashback to this moment.”

I also never hesitated to use a flashback — or create a new flashback! — if something that felt dramatically appropriate happened which I hadn’t anticipated. By and large, that’s what happened here: There were some flashbacks that had “near death” as a trigger; others that felt thematically appropriate. (I was also trying to strengthen the relationship Elestra and Dominic had before the lost time, since I had identified that this had not really been as deeply invested in by the players as the Agnarr-Tee relationship had been because the Elestra-Dominic prelude didn’t actually happen at the game table. It still didn’t really take. Things that happen at the game table are just more “real” than things that are only written down in character backgrounds.)

You’ll also note that the flashback visions are static. I’ve talked in the past about using playable flashbacks, but in this case I didn’t want the players to feel authorship of them or the ownership which would come with it. I wanted them to be alienated from these experiences; for these experiences to feel as if they had “happened to somebody else” even while they knew that it was, in fact, something that had happened to them.

This would not remain invariably true as the campaign progressed, although there were some unique twists which accompanied their first opportunities to “live” these memories. That, however, is a tale for another time.



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