Saturday, August 27, 2016

RotSM, part 8

When last we left her, Mitra had lost her most trusted companion to a pack of warg riding scouts from the hordes of Dragonspear that were advancing along points north and south. Misfortune also stole from her grasp the one evil possession that promised salvation for her friends, the death mask of the naive king. The Axegrinder dwarf clan is forced to work for her nemesis, Xavier Zalibar unless she can deliver the now stolen item. What is she to do? Does she pursue the thief in vain and abandon her new friend, Redbeard, and the rest of depraved Soubar?

For a recap of posts in this exciting epic, refer to the list with links to the original posts. Skip all this if you are interested only in the system specific details of the AP.
  • Post 1. Mitra ventures to remote regions of the Thunder Peaks and recovers the Death Mask of the Naive King.
  • Post 2. In Luskan, two conspirators discuss the progress of Mitra. A wizard has the means to observe her movements remotely.
  • Post 3. After a long journey, Mitra travels west and north with her prize. Near the High Moor she encounters wounded Red Beard who warns of hobgoblins and devils. They traveled south together to Soubar to warn the folk of the region, but Mitra is robbed, her mask taken.
  • Post 4. In Luskan, Hacarthor the wizard meets his contact’s employer, Zalibar, the nemesis of Mitra. They learn that the cursed mask was stolen. We also learn that Zalibar has imprisoned Sanbar Axegrinder, Mitra’s friend and his clan who are building a mechanical horror — the mask is key to its completion. We also learn in Soubar about the thieves — the Calashite orphan flees Soubar with the mask.
  • Post 5. Mitra send Redbeard to the town’s officials to break news of the impending invasion and goes in search of the thieves. She finds their lair, but the trail of the thief grows cold.
  • Post 6. The petty-thief, Stordfast, met an untimely end and has released the demon bound within the mask. Our heroine has no clue as to these events, but the fate of her friends lays in recovering and delivering the mask.
  • Post 7. Mitra sets out alone to track the mask’s thief blindly, but stumbles into a scouting party from the hordes of Dragonspear. She looses her trusted steed and is faced with the need to warn the town or potentially loose her quarry.
In my last post, I discussed how I planned to convert the game to Cornerstone Universal RPG, and listed stats for our heroine. I am also using Rory’s Story Cubes to fill in prompts and blanks, with a simple roll of a D6 indicating the general positivity or negativity if such context is not immediately obvious. I will impose a few more guidelines about how I intend to use the cubes…

In past sessions, I might roll one or two cubes at a time as needed. My cut scenes devoted to NPC and plot development were some of the most intriguing ones. These were freeform, relying only on a set of nine cubes picked to taste.

I’m going with a roll of nine again for all scenes including PC-centric ones. I may or may not use them in the order rolled, depending on whether or not this impedes progress and ease. In any case, a set of nine will be my pacing mechanism for the scene. Once all nine are expended, my goal is to wrap up any loose ends as quickly as possible. Hanging threads are always fine too — even desirable, since they keep me coming back for more.

Since this is a first post with the new system, I’m going to be kicking the tires of Cornerstone pretty hard.

Without further ado…

Mitra ran in full force, tears of grief ran freely intermingled with gasps for breath as she willed her legs forward. Her baldric clanked loudly against her shirt of mesh. The town’s edge slowly drew nearer.

Elephant. Bull, male, tusks, thick skin, memory? I find brainstorming helpful to achieve results that do not always produce the most obvious ones. Memory seems good. A roll of 4 on a Die of Fate indicates a positive meaning.

As she ran, a vision suddenly filled her thoughts. She saw an old and kindly man with deep leathery creases in his weathered face who loomed over a baby lying in a crib — she was that baby. He spoke soothing words to her and stroked her cheek with the back of a rough calloused hand. “Nala…” the man said, the old Damaran word for angel. The man was her father — a man she should have had, by all conventional reasoning, no right to remember. He had died during Damara’s first Witch-King invasion when Mitra was only three weeks old.

The vision cleared, and Mitra found herself in a standstill, shocked by the omen. Why had it come at such a time? What did it mean? There was no time for pondering.

No Entry. I think this has an obvious meaning…was Redbeard able to assemble and warn the town?

Mitra burst upon the square of the town gripped by chaos. Redbeard stood at the center of a mob scene along with the militia men the two had encountered after Mitra’s theft. Angry townsfolk thronged in a mass, screaming angrily at one another, demanding answers to hard questions, and causing disorder. To one side, an abandoned child screamed for her mother who was nowhere to be seen, and to another corner two men broke into a fistfight while others were going about looting a general store.

The Damaran was shocked by the pettiness and lawlessness of the folk. For the moment, her sorrows were replaced by anger. She leapt upon the landing atop the stairs to the tavern. “Stop this insolence!”

Okay, time for my first Task roll. She’s going to attempt to cow them into understanding. She sees running from the approaching horde as the only option, with those stalwart enough to face the first wave of attackers to remain behind to buy time for the rest to escape. That’s a tall order, so I give it a -1 penalty due to difficulty, plus another source of difficulty because there’s a mob scene. Next we’ll figure out traits. She’s going with a direct approach, which is her method core trait. That cancels out one difficulty modifier, leaving her with a single -1 penalty. She happens to be spattered with gore and disheveled which might grant gravitas to the situation. She is using her Influence skill, which is rated as capable. She succeeds with a roll of 3 or higher.

She rolls with a -1, getting a result of 5 and 3. That succeeds! She’s not out of the woods, however. An even result adds an “and…” to the result, while odd provides a “but…”. I like the fact that straight-up “Yes” or “No” are pretty much eliminated in Cornerstone, so there’s always a push on the narrative. It’s also fascinating how many result details one can determine with a throw of a single die.

Some gaming parts (traits, difficulty, and advantage) are at first a bit confusing, but I think I’ll get the routine shortly:
  • Only one positive trait can be used per action; it provides a +1 or an additional “and…” or “but…” qualifier
  • Multiple sources of difficulty provide up to +1/-1 per source, but don’t stack
  • A trait can cancel out a difficulty modifier/qualifier, and CAN stack with difficulty (meaning the most penalty/bonus you’ll ever see is +2/-2)
  • Multiple sources of advantage/disadvantage cancel out but don’t stack, providing a roll twice, keep best/worst option
Slowly the bickering and looting slowed and eyes turned to the gore-spattered warrioress who found that her bloodied sword was still grasped in her tight hand. She had been a veteran of hundreds of skirmishes, and as a woman had surmounted even greater obstacles to command the respect of hardened men. She was also a gifted leader and knew how to exert the coercion needed to force men to listen, often in the face of terror and death.

When she felt she had every eye, she continued. “Soubar is lost! If you are to survive, you must abandon her. The enemy is already upon us…I slew two scouts on the edges of town. A horde of goblins and devils is behind them. The host will not be more than half a day’s ride from here.

“Your window of escape is nearly closed, unless you leave NOW! Take your loved ones, what you need to sustain you on the road and leave the rest behind. Make for Baldur’s Gate. You can escape only if the strongest and bravest stand behind to waylay the first wave of the enemy.”

She saw that she impressed upon them the need to escape, but the last part of her plan turned most of the cowards’ bowels to water.

“I am Mitra! I am a field commander of some experience, and I shall remain behind with those brave souls that will teach these raiders why they should not test the mettle of the good folk here. Die if I must, we will hold back a great number if you should follow my sword.”

Her words had a profound effect. She sent the townsfolk hastening. They were terrified, but at least found the conviction to act. By the time the goodwives, children and elderly had cast off down the western road and she had collected her volunteers, she had only a fraction of the number she estimated from a town of such size. Those that returned were the sort of desperate, infirm, geriatric, paltry lot she hoped to avoid — and severely under-equipped besides. Nonetheless, they commanded more of her respect than could any of her former mercenary comrades with many times the skill in arms.

I’m going to be tracking some of these difficulties as we go: so far, we have a difficult task of waylaying the greater enemy (-1), and disadvantaged due to under-preparedness/training, and ill-equipped. I’m a little unsure the difference between a difficulty and an advantage/disadvantage, since the rules seem to imply there can be multiple sources of difficulty. They seem equivalent according to the examples in the rules. I guess difficulty is related to the task itself, while advantage relates to outside sources of aid or impediment. Still somewhat unclear. [Edit: after a quick Q&A with the author, this is true.]

She addressed them, Redbeard at her side. “Soubar will be lost. We cannot hope to protect her, so abandon your attachment now to your homes and property. Those things will only earn you death. We can hope to raze her to thwart the enemy and buy time for your kin. If you feel saddened to loose your home and memories — your heirlooms and mementos — I sympathize. Your only solace is in seeing that the enemy does not take these trophies!”

She laid out a plan. Dividing the folk into groups, one team worked to scavenge for anything useful as weapons or to construct traps. Flammables were stockpiled, pits dug, and homes doused in oil to light aflame. Timber was salvaged affixed with sharpened stakes to form choke point barricades at even intervals, allowing odds to be reduced in favor of the less numerous defenders. Lastly, Redbeard instructed the remaining townsfolk how to effectively handle a weapon. For the most part, they would use projectiles and incendiaries.

Mitra has her human ability, a technique that allows her to never fail when performing non-combat related tasks in connection with her Expertise. For her, this is battle tactics, so she needs not roll to perform these tasks. We’ll just tally the advantages: traps and strategic choke points. That will cancel out the disadvantages. When all is said and done, it looks like she’ll be making Influence command tasks without a modifier, since her Mercenary class trait can cancel out that modifier. A roll of 3 or better will grant a success.

When all was made ready, dusk began to fall. The few townsfolk were entrenched in their positions, ready to take the enemy as they swept south through the town. She and Redbeard shared the anticipatory watchfulness in silence.

Minotaur. I’m wanting to know if Redbeard presses Mitra about the incident with the scouts in the previous post. Minotaur — bully, tough, labyrinth. I’ll say he tries to trap her through his cunning labyrinth of questions.

“Did you find any badges or marks upon those goblins?” the veteran asked after a spell of silence.

“Hmm? I didn’t think to check,” Mitra answered distractedly. “My only thought was to alert the town.”

“Where did you say you encountered them?”

“I didn’t,” she answered. “It was east and south of town.”

Silence. After a time, “It seems to me strange that you would find yourself along that eastern way.”

“What are you implying?” Mitra asked with irritation, taking a defensive posture.

“If I am to die with you, I would know with whom I fight and what motivations drive her,” he said with even tone.

It was a fair point. Mitra had purposefully deceived him in order to avoid questions about what was actually stolen from her. How could he trust her? Even more, why?

Mitra could remain tight lipped upon need, and she still wouldn’t reveal the nature of her quest even now when they together faced a likely death protecting a lawless folk. Still, he owed her his life — but she understood well the fundamental bonds from which loyalty issued.

Mitra will again use her Influence to convince him to trust her, but without lying. No modifier, and she’ll trigger her loyalty trait to cancel an “and” or “but”. She’s disadvantaged because he has proven skullduggery is afoot. She needs a 3 or better and gets 6 and 3. It’s a yes “but”, although her trait successfully cancels the qualifier. That’s kind of a cool thing about how traits work…the player must choose what benefit (+1, add an and/but, or cancel an and/but) is desired before the roll.

“Dauravyn,” she began, “you have guessed correctly that I am keeping something from you. I cannot reveal its nature, because it will betray dear friends — friends who are in mortal peril should my quest fail. These, too, are good and honest folk with wives and kin that will also suffer the same fate as these townspeople here do. There is evil in my mission, but I cannot abandon it.”
Redbeard put a hand on her arm. “We needn’t pursue the issue further. I sensed a conflict from some trouble, but also felt the quality of your convictions. Keep your secrets…”

The two said no more.

Wormhole. Now, we’d like to know how the enemy first appears. Psychic attack, disoriented, weird, magical gate, radiating waves, target, blast of fear. I’ll go with the latter.

The waiting seemed interminable as the deepening gloom fell upon the mostly vacant town. The palpitant silence was suddenly rent asunder by a frightful blast from a mighty horn call. Joining the unison were several other answering blares.

“Their advance has started,” Redbeard said needlessly.

Mitra saw the fearful shift of her hastily trained defense line. “Steady yourselves,” she said in a calm tone. “Remember your kin — hold your positions so that they may live.”

She tries to remove their fear. She’s disadvantaged because of it, but again triggers her loyalty trait to cancel an and/but. She gets a 2 and a 2, which fails. However, she is able to cancel the “and…”, meaning they are afraid but hold their line.

She could see their quaking. There was nothing that she could do to nullify their fear. But she knew what the effects of fear could do to benefit the common man during the throes of battle.

Arrow. What is the next thing that happens? Well, that’s very appropriate!

The shrill whistle of arrows followed as the fall of deadly bolts began to precipitate, some of which were lit with burning pitch. “Let them waste their arrows!” she called to her untested soldiery. To herself, she added under her breath, “Let them burn this accursed town!”

Mitra executes the next part of her plan — to lure the enemy in and set fire to the flammable traps. Her traps advantage cancels the under-prepared disadvantage, but her unorthodox methods add one in. We still have to contend with a -1 modifier and have no traits from which to draw. Mitra rolls 5 and 5, so that’s a success BUT…

More arrows heralded the front lines — warg riders bearing torches. Mitra exercised all her will to hold back her men from bolting or setting fire to their elaborate traps too early. The first few enemy riders shot through the perimeter of the square. Mitra gave the signal and the incendiary pots and strategic oil-doused buildings burst into flames.

Screams of the enemy were heard. The plan was taking its toll on the front wave of marauders. But screams from nearby townsfolk mingled with the horrific cries of the enemy as one burning structure tumbled into the square trapping a group between walls of fire.

“Come on!” Mitra cried to Redbeard and many of the nearby fighters. They hastened to the edge of the blaze. Every moment they waited, the flames crept ever closer toward the circular prison’s center.

Mitra had an idea. “Stay clear!” she called to the trapped townsfolk. “You five, help me push this over…” She came to a still standing section of the structure’s wall that had not yet caught fire. If they could tip it over atop the flames, they might create a bridge of escape, provided the section didn’t crush the people.

The description says it all. This is a Might task with a difficulty modifier of -1. She’s got help and is being creative, which are two advantages. She rolls, getting a 1 and a 2. That’s “no, but…”.

When putting their might together, they finally caused the section to topple, it was simply too short to reach the safer center where the people were trapped. However, the dust and broken timber was enough to smother some of the flames. That was enough boost to encourage many of the men there to attempt to pierce the barrier of flames. They punched through, many of them catching fire. Their comrades smothered the flames that eagerly licked at their garments. Many were severely burned.

Hanging Around.

As Mitra helped one of the last across, some of the flooring broke underfoot. She dropped into the smoking ruin under the burning structure, hanging onto a broken ledge with one arm. Burning embers showered her, singing the bare skin of her arms, and smoke choked her lungs.

Getting out, she must contend with the smoke and embers, making it -1. There’s no advantage or trait here, just a straight up Might roll. She rolled a 0!

She tried to twist to grip the jagged edge with her other hand, but the crumbling handhold failed. With a cry, she fell into the smoking ruin.

Yikes! Now a Resistance roll for damage. I love how Cornerstone makes the GM’s job easy! Give any opponent or source of danger a damage rating and call it done. The author suggests a range of damage suitable for weapon lethality, going up to about 10. I’m going to give this a range of 10 / 20, because that’s more than Mitra has. And I think this has the potential to take her out of the action. She rolls a 6 to get a “Yes, and…”. She’s a tough cookie! (Vitality remaining: 6)

Next, she must climb out. Normally, this would be standard difficulty, but she has to contend with the disadvantage that the place is going up in flames. This sort of implies she should also roll to resist the flames — 3 / 6 damage I’ll say. Coordination to get out gives her a roll of 2 and 2 — “No, and…”. Persevere through the smoke and flames — 1 and 1 — “No, but…”. She is taken out, but finds a place to lie away from the worst of the flames. She’s out of Vitality and incapacitated.

Planks of wood and other rubble fell atop the mercenary as she hit bottom with a painful crash. Soot and smoke filled her lungs. She gasped for air as she fought her way out. Much of the structure above came crashing down quickly thereafter and she knew no more.

Dungeon; Creepy Boatman, Marshal’s Badge. Going to use up the rest of these to close the chapter.

Redbeard turned to find Mitra was not there. He asked one of the men where she went, but none had seen her tumble into the cellar of the ruined building.

In moments, more riders poured through the barricades and past burning buildings. The complication had cost the freedom fighters valuable time. In moments, any who put up resistance were cut down. The remainder, including the captain of the Stewards of the Old Road threw down their weapons. Mercy was not a trait of the hobgoblins, but a higher power dictated their actions. After the first resistors were slain, the defeated were rounded up and manacled. Many large pen wagons drew up, pulled by massive beasts. The prisoners were mercilessly whipped and loaded on board, their few personal effects taken from them.

The force’s captain strode forward — a massive bloated abomination of pocked rubbery skin bubbling with rupturing nodules. The horrific demon strode up to the lead wagon, identifying Redbeard from the horde’s previous incursion against his forces. The captain of the hobgoblin and demon army smiled hideously.

“The mask…” he said in a sickly baritone. “Where is it?”

Mitra has another string of bad luck — or perhaps not. She’s at least free if she can scramble free. What will happen next time? Another complication turns with the demon captain also wishing to covet the mask. Tune in to find out what happens...

Last Notes

After a little time with Cornerstone, I think it runs fast and lean. Many of the gizmos, widgets, bobs and buzzers are not overwhelming. If there are a number of factors in play that might require modifiers and advantages, it’s quite easy to eyeball them and determine a mostly negative or mostly positive slant. Since +1/-1 is the most from any one thing, snap decisions are easy to make. There’s also an intriguing aspect of play when determining how best to use traits — choosing from a flat modifier or an additional and/but before the roll. It makes for some interesting strategic choices.

In any case, I’m looking forward to continuing Mitra’s epic story…

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