Monday, 18 March 2013

Campaign Week: part four


Something I’ve learned from the first week of campaign play is that the “narrative” in “narrative wargaming campaign” doesn’t come so much from the battles you play, but the little bits of story that knit them together. Consider, for a moment, the structure of an action movie... obviously, there need to be explosions. We’re all down with explosions, not least of which so that badass people can avoid looking at them. Now imagine a film containing nothing but explosions. That’d get old faster than [insert reality-TV-launched boy band here].

Don’t get me wrong, action scenes still have story content, but they function more like a big, gory fulcrum around which a preceding chunk of plot will turn.

Why am I rambling on about this? Because it serves as a preamble to the second part of our campaign’s story wot we started in the last post. If you haven’t read that, this post is going to make little sense from this point onwards.


As I was saying, you need bits of plot to give the battles context. For us, this was a largely collaborative affair, but a Games Master/Storyteller might do a more focussed job of it. Either way, the important thing with relevance to this post is that the story you’re about to read is a cocktail of plot points created by both gaming and discussion. The key thing is that none of us knew where the story was headed beyond the next battle.


The empty village



When Amelia, Cedric and Dwalin got to Stöckse, it was as though the refugees had never even arrived. The breaches in the town walls were un-barricaded, the gates open, and the streets deserted. But for Marshal Fallschturm’s assurances that the village’s refugees had indeed been escorted back to their homes and left with a small garrison, Amelia would have assumed no-one had been there since the Norsemen.
           But then, on closer inspection, the scene didn’t make sense. There were old, dry bloodstains on the flagstones, and even a few whole body parts, but no bodies. Inside the houses were signs of recent fighting, but again: no bodies.
           “Too late,” Dwalin said. “The brothers have been and gone.”
           “Well that’s a bugger,” Cedric put in quickly. “Oh well, no sense hanging about. Back to the ship for dinner, milord?”
           “It wasn’t necromancy that removed the bodies,” Amelia said, looking around the empty town square. Dwalin turned to her. Cedric’s shoulders slumped.
           “Blood and no bodies? Sounds like necromancy to me,” Dwalin said.
           “Trust me, I’d know if bodies had been risen here. It was something else.”
           “What, then?” Dwalin asked, his patience wearing thin.
           “I don’t know,” Amelia admitted.
           “That, Cedric, is why Dwarfs don’t hold with magic.”
           “Yes milord.”
           “All it means is that the bodies weren’t moved by Shyish,” Amelia explained.
           Cedric and Dwalin looked at her blankly.
           “By which I mean they used mundane methods of purveyance.”
           More blank looks.
           Affecting a Mootish accent, Amelia said, “They done used a wheelbarrow or summat.”
           “Oh! Right.” Cedric said.
           “Hmm,” said Dwalin.
           The three of them were quiet for a moment.
           At length, Cedric asked, “What would a vampire be doing muckin about with a wheelbarrow?”
           “They wouldn’t,” Amelia said, exasperated.
           “Well, unless they was gardening or some such. But then I don’t suppose most vampires are all that keen on things what grow, but maybe these ones’re different, being Brettonian an all that.”
           Amelia’s tone grew strained. “Forget about the wheelbarrow. The important thing—”
           On the other side of the square, across the bridge over the river, the front door to a mansion slammed open. A middle-aged man walked out with a book in one hand and a flail in the other. He was half-starved, dressed in sackcloth and sported a large, un-tamed beard.
           “Harken, brothers and sisters, the unclean defile our town once more!” the man said. More shouts came from inside the house.
           “We are servants of Sigmar,” Amelia shouted. “Archaon’s horde is defeated! You are safe!”
           “Do not listen to her lies, brothers and sisters! The Lord of the End Times has been and gone, and now, all are ghosts! She bears the cloth of a witch, and for that she must be burned from this sanctified ground!”
            With a rising nausea, Amelia realised the truth. The refugees hadn’t been slain by the de Crécys, but by fanatical Sigmarites. She pictured starving families setting their homes to rights, having survived the greatest war of the age, only to die at the hands of another Imperial citizen blood-drunk on fundamentalist rhetoric. A chant rose up from inside the mansion. Burn the witch! Burn the witch! Burn the witch!
           “Cedric,” Dwalin said, “you’d best find yourself a good rooftop.”
           “Yes milord.”
           “I’ll meet them on the bridge,” Dwalin said to Amelia. She saw his strategy immediately; it was a perfect bottleneck, but there were twenty-odd cultists emerging from the building with all manner of flails, morningstars, whips, clubs, and burning torches.
           “This isn’t your fight,” Amelia said as they ran towards the little stone bridge.
           “No, but I’m not going to outrun it, am I?” the runesmith replied as he reached the mid-point on the bridge. Amelia stood back and began to draw the winds of magic into her staff. Behind her, Cedric emerged onto the roof of a ruined house and drew his first arrow. “If you’re going to do something impressive,” Dwalin shouted to Amelia over the chanting of the oncoming cultists, “now would be a fine time.”
           But the winds of magic were unusually weak. Whether it was the mere presence of a dwarfen runesmith, or simply dumb luck, Amelia was finding it unusually difficult to summon the energy needed to cast even the most basic hex.
           The cultists ran up the bridge two abreast, whipping and scourging their own backs even as they closed on Dwalin’s armoured bulk. The dwarf hefted his staff and swung it up to meet his foes’ first blow, deflecting it and following through with the other end, slamming a man’s head into the stone wall at the side of the bridge. He fought with a slow, deliberate rhythm, each hit either connecting or keeping his opponents back, but the cultists’ freneticism was taking its toll. Whips and flails gouged at his arms and entangled his legs. A morningstar came down on his shoulder even as he broke the owner’s jaw. Dwalin staggered under the sheer press of bodies, and just as Amelia was almost ready to cast, two cultists pushed past the dwarf and rushed her.
           Breaking focus on the spell, she swung her scythe up and lopped off the first man’s arm. She had no chance of stopping the other, though. He raised a spiked club, screamed, “Purge!” and brought the club down.
           It never connected.
           By the time the cultist hit the floor, he was already dead, the arrow in his eye still quivering from the impact. Amelia resolved to thank Cedric later. Ahead, she could see Dwalin outnumbered and, increasingly, overwhelmed. He was down on one knee, having dropped his staff, and was laying about the cultists with his hammer in one hand and a human club in the other. The winds were still too weak, but taking a risk was better than admitting defeat.
           Dwalin had no intention of dying whilst holding a shoddily-built human bridge, but that appeared to be exactly what was happening. After the blow to his shoulder, his off-hand wasn’t much good for anything other than putting the club in the way of things, and his hammer was hardly much of a defensive weapon either. What would his ancestors think of this death? He deserved it, placing his faith in the skills of a wizard. But then, something happened behind him. Amelia’s chanting started to change pitch, sounding too guttural for a human, and suddenly, he was deaf. A gust of wind blew past him, and the cultists staggered, their fervour gone, their grips on their weapons slack.
           From up on the roof, it looked to Cedric like the cultists just stopped fighting like they really meant it. Dwalin didn’t hesitate. Even from Cedric’s distance, the sound of splintering bone was upsettingly audible above the screams.

“Are you badly wounded?” Amelia asked Dwalin, stepping carefully over the trail of mangled bodies. The runesmith was sitting on the flagstones at the other end of the bridge. Blood was running from his shoulder, and his breathing was ragged.
           “It’ll mend,” he said between breaths. “What did you do? I lost my hearing.”
           “I know. That was deliberate; hearing Soulblight isn’t advisable even when it’s not being directed at you, so I placed a hex on your ears first.”
           “You placed a hex on me?” Dwalin asked, outraged.
           “Think of it more like a ward if you like.”
           “Hmph.”

Once they had bound Dwalin’s wound and checked the mansion for any more fanatics, they went looking for Stöckse’s graveyard. It was down the road from the mansion, near another breach in the town’s wall. The graves were empty. Muddy footprints led away from the graves, through the breach, and north into the Weiss Hills.
           “So they’re still weak,” Dwalin said, “taking bodies in the night, not even bothering to kill those cultists.”
           “Then this is probably our only chance,” Amelia said. She took a step towards the breach before she realised Dwalin wasn’t following her. Looking back, she understood. The dwarf had lost a lot of blood, and he’d need Cedric’s help to get back to his ship. But she couldn’t just abandon the search, not when she had an actual trail to follow.
           From the look in Dwalin’s eyes, he understood. “Good luck,” he said. She gave him and Cedric a grateful nod, and struck out after the tracks.

Tracks in the Weiss Hills

Amelia slept rough that night, and carried on at dawn. The open moorland of the Weiss Hills did nothing to slow the cold spring wind blowing down off the Middle Mountains in the north. She followed the tracks for another day, eating the last of the provisions she’d brought with her. The tracks crossed the Old Forest Road west of Fort Schippel, and shortly after that spread out. She was momentarily confused until she started realising they’d spread out into battle formations. Here, a severed limb. There, a scrap of cloth. Then she came across a broken shield bearing the eight-pointed star of the Northmen. The livery was blue, with a gold trim – not a colouration she recognised. As she advanced further across the battlefield, there were more bits of broken blue armour, but no bodies. That meant the de Crécys had not only won, but added Norse corpses to their numbers. Sure enough, the tracks re-converged further on and continued on their way north. Cold, starving, and disinclined to fight what was now an entire army single-handed, she re-traced her steps and made her way to Fort Schippel.

And you will know them by the shuffly signs of their passing.
(blue = tracks left by the shambling dead)

The fort was the easternmost stronghold still in Imperial hands, and had been largely ignored by the Norse invaders. It was the only safe place left for at least seventy-five miles in any direction. Inside its high, pale walls, demoralised regiments of state troops huddled around the fires in the barracks, apparently competing as to who had the most traumatic wartime anecdote.
           Upon her arrival, the master of the watch hurried down from the officers’ mess. He was the sort of tough old soldier who’d survived long enough to be given a job that didn’t involve too much marching. The scars on his hard-set face implied that he didn’t scare easily. “Welcome to Fort Schippel,” he said in a nervous tone. Amelia looked up at him, too tired to arrange her face into a mask of politeness. She leant on her scythe-staff. “It’s not often we see someone from the Colleges. Can we offer you food? Drink? Is there someone you’ve come to speak with?”
           “Just find me a bed,” she managed, almost asleep on her feet.
           “Of course, right away. Sergeant Kahler! Please escort our honoured guest to the chambers in the tower. Will you be staying long, milady?”
           Amelia followed Sergeant Kahler away without giving the master of the watch an answer.

She awoke to some sort of commotion. There were no alarm bells, but she could hear people hurrying down stone steps and talking in tones of hushed reverence. Rising from the bed and opening the window’s heavy wooden shutters, she looked out onto the courtyard. The main gates were opening, and through them marched Dwalin and Cedric at the head of a bedraggled column of dwarf warriors. Amelia threw on her clothes and rushed downstairs.
           “What happened?” she asked Dwalin.
           “Amelia! Didn’t expect to see you here.”
           “Nor you. What happened?” she repeated. Dwalin looked at her for a moment, his face unreadable, before he turned to the master of the watch and asked if there might be a place his men could rest. Cedric took Amelia to one side, and explained in hushed terms:
           “It’s not been a great couple of days.
           “We got back to the steamer easy as you like, and we’re sailing back past Hergig, and we sees a few lines of chimney smoke. Funny, Dwalin says, I thought Ludenhof hadn’t sent anyone back to the capital, and I shrugs. We steers in for a closer look, and suddenly there’s cannon fire, but not normal cannon fire, mind you. More like green lightning, it were, and parts of the steamer start melting off, and the whole thing looks like it’s sinking, and suddenly we has to run it aground since apparently dwarfs en’t that keen on swimming, so Dwalin orders us hard to port, and we swings up the River Kiefer, taking on water all the way, and we makes it maybe a quarter mile before we has to run aground on the nearest bank so we’re on the right side of the river to get up to this here fort.”
           “Slow down, Cedric, slow down,” Amelia said. “You mean to tell me that there’s someone in the capital, and they fired on a Stormbourne ship?”
           “En’t that exactly what I just said?”
           “Your accent: fine. Fast talking: fine. Your accent whilst talking fast: Morr’s pity.”
           “Fair enough.” Cedric took a few deep breaths. “Anyway, that weren’t the worst of it.”
           “Losing a ship to lightning cannons wasn’t the worst of it?” Amelia asked.
           “So we hauls all the important bits ashore, and Dwalin’s none too happy about having to leave a ship for whoever done fired on us, and no sooner had we got aground then these big man-sized rat-beastmen with armour and clothes and spears and suchlike come bearing down on us. Dwalin seemed to know what they were, and the Stormbournes all lined up, and I thought that’d see the rats off, but... well... it were sort of the opposite to my assumptions, and we ended up having to break out and fight a running battle about five miles into the hills. Them rats were persistent buggers. They gave up in the end, but half the dwarfs had kicked the bucket by then, and Dwalin were muttering about the ‘old enemy’ or somesuch, and we resigned ourselves to hiking up here for food and shelter.”
           “And so here you are,” Amelia said.
           “Well not quite.”
           Amelia looked at the halfling incredulously.
           “There was that army of Northmen too, all armoured in blue and gold, but they had a battered look to ’em, and the dwarfs was giving no quarter by that point, so we saw them off an’ all.”
           “Blue and gold?” Amelia asked pensively. Hopefully they weren’t a threat, having lost some of their numbers to the de Crécys, and yet more to the Stormbournes. “Hold on,” she said, having just run the distances through her mind. “You mean to tell me that these dwarfs have just marched from Hergig to here in just two days? That’s not possible. You won’t march an Empire army seventy-five miles in two days, and, not to snake around the subject, we’ve got longer legs.”
           “I bet you’d stop for sleep, though, wouldn’t you?” Cedric said. The halfling looked like he’d hit exhaustion and come out the other side, but the other dwarfs looked more angry and shamed than tired. She stared at them in disbelief.
           The dwarfs spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating in the barracks, much to the quiet resentment of the state troops whose billets they were given. As she recovered her strength, Amelia watched patrols, and even some knights of the Silver Drake come and go throughout the day. Everyone seemed to be exhausted; it was hard to imagine how they could be galvanised into fighting another war so soon after the last, but if she didn’t find and kill the de Crécys soon, that’s what it would be: a war.

It was near sundown by the time Captain Oskar Brandt and his men reached Fort Schippel, but they were all in high spirits. He strode through the main gates at the head of the column, one hand resting on the pommel of his sword. The master of the watch came trotting down the stairs to greet them.
           “Master Vossmeier!” Oskar called to him. “Always a pleasure. Have you spare billets and hot food for these men? They’ve earned it.” Behind him, the Powderkegs gave a tired but happy cheer of agreement.
           “Captain Brandt, welcome, welcome,” Vossmeier replied.” Food we have, but billets are scarce - we’ve a full house tonight, and not just Sigmar’s people at that. No matter; we’ll put up more tents in the courtyard.”
           “It’ll have to do,” Oskar said. Knowing the drill, the Powderkegs and the Blades of Taal fell out behind him and made for the barracks. “And who’s this?” he asked, spotting the woman sitting on a crate beneath the stable’s awning. She cut an athletic figure in her plum-red robes and dark leather bodice. She met his gaze head-on and stood up. Oskar’s curiosity changed to bemusement upon realising that she was taller than everyone else in the courtyard.
           “Amelia von Lessing, of the Amethyst Order,” she said in a subtle Nordland accent. That she was a wizard was intimidating enough; that she was an Amethyst wizard was actively frightening. Her tone suggested that she wasn’t remotely keen on talking to him.
           At first, it seemed something of a contradiction that she’d stood up to address him. If she didn’t wish to speak to him, then showing off her height would be intended to put him off, either by intimidation or – yes, that was it – she’d concluded that he was about to make a move (a fair conclusion, he admitted) but would be put off by what she thought of as her most unattractive attribute – her unseemly height. It worked, not least of which because Oskar decided he’d look ridiculous as the shorter half of a couple of lovers.
           He bowed, and in a less suggestive tone, said, “Captain Oskar Brandt. A pleasure.”
           “And what are you so damn happy about?” she asked, as if he’d no right to a smile. She was swiftly undermining his good mood. The last few moments of his life had, briefly, promised a spell betwixt the sheets with a beautiful woman – the perfect end to a flawless patrol – and had suddenly shifted to being scolded by a practitioner of death magic.
           “We’ve every right to be in good humour,” Oskar said. “My men and I have just completed a patrol of the Mountain Road, and despite facing an army of the dead, we took few casualties and have returned to Fort Schippel for well-earned succour.”
           Amelia’s eyes widened. “An army of the dead?” she repeated.
           “Yes indeed,” Oskar said proudly, noticing the way her gaze occasionally dropped to his legs. He resisted the urge to flex them, even he’d no intention of bedding her. “We came upon them as they marched west. Skeletal warriors, and many rotting corpses, flying turquoise banners bearing the Fleur-de-Lys. Very strange. Anyway,” he said cheerfully, “we had them at range, and downed them with lead. I closed with their leader and finished him off myself. You should’ve been there; it was quite something.”
           “Their leader, there was only one?”
           “By definition.”
           “What did he look like?”
           “Ancient, impossibly ancient, and clad in tattered black fabric. What, I ask you, is the point of living forever if that’s the dress code?”
           “Black fabric? Good. But he was the only leader? There wasn’t another? A more... savage opponent?”
           “How did you know?” Oskar asked.
           “Tell me,” she said.
           “A bestial creature, twice a man’s height. There was barely any vestige of humanity left, but you could tell by the way he moved, like he hadn’t always been a wild animal. But he was monstrous; borne on leathery wings, howling like a madman. Blood-drunk, even. He bounded towards our huntsmen, but Kiril’s men didn’t survive Archaon’s war just to die to a lone vampire. They downed him with arrows.”
           “You killed him? And the leader, the one in the black robes?” Amelia asked, a euphoric smile breaking across her features.
           “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Oskar replied. Amelia leapt forwards and threw her arms around him, laughing loudly. Uncertainly, Oskar returned the embrace and patted her twice on the back. Suddenly seeming to remember herself, she let go, and adjusted her belt. Then the seriousness returned to her face.
           “You must take me there at once,” she said, “and show me the bodies.”
           Oskar’s heart sank. All the way back up the River Flaschgang, and a twenty-five mile hike along the Mountain Road was not a fine alternative to a day of rest and merriment. “At least let the men stay behind,” he said, “they’ve earned their rest.”
           “Fine,” Amelia said. “We’ll just have to avoid any trouble. Be ready to leave at first light.”
           “Examining the slain will have to wait,” a stern voice said. They both turned. Oskar’s heart sank even further. Had he known that the grand master of the Silver Drakes was in Fort Schippel, he would have told his men to drag their heels for a day or two.
           “Master von Rüdiger,” Oskar said, saluting.
           Von Rüdiger gave him a cursory nod, and turned to Amelia. “I’ve been speaking with the Stormbournes’ runesmith. It seems some form of beastmen have taken up residence in Hergig. I’ve sent word to Tussenhof, and Count Ludenhof has asked that I take all available forces south to retake the city before these new foes can establish themselves. We leave in the morning.”
           “Master von Rüdiger, I cannot stress the importance of confirming the de Crécys’ demise,” Amelia said.
           “If they are truly dead, their bodies will wait, and if they are not, then there is little you can do,” Von Rüdiger said.
           “On the contrary, a vampire is weakest when—” Amelia began.
           “Are you duty-shy?” Von Rüdiger asked. You are a battle wizard of the Empire above and beyond an emissary of the Amethyst Order, and that is precisely how your master will see the matter. Once we have retaken the capital, you may conduct your affairs in any manner you see fit, but for now, you will go where you are needed.”
           “And you would do well to remember that your office holds no sway over mine,” Amelia said. “Since I’ve no wish to leave bad blood between our orders, though, I shall acquiesce to your request.”
           For a moment, Oskar worried that the two of them might come to blows. He’d heard that Amethyst wizards could draw a man’s soul from their body just by looking at them, but then again, von Rüdiger was probably the most powerful warrior in Hochland.
           “Good,” von Rüdiger said at length. “I will see you in the morning. And you, Captain.”
           Oskar saluted again, and as the templar turned his back, he dropped his hand and breathed out.
           “Is he always like that?” Amelia asked.
           Oskar gave a tired nod.
           “No matter,” Amelia said. “You didn’t know it at the time, but you’ve done me a good turn. I won’t sleep well until I’ve checked their bodies, but I think you and your men just saved hundreds of lives.” Oskar felt a glow of pride, and smiled.


The Battle of Hergig

Leaving Dwalin’s company behind to lick their wounds, every Imperial regiment in Fort Schippel marched out of Fort Schippel the next morning. They headed southeast across the Weiss Hills, then into the Drakwald forest past the ruins of Müden. At the close of the third day, they came to the ruins of Hergig. Just as Cedric said, black chimney smoke was rising from the city; Oskar heard the master gunner of the volley gun say it looked like forge-smoke. That wasn’t the way of beastmen, Oskar thought. They scavenged and stole, and had no interest in living in buildings. He began to wonder if they would actually make it through the city gates.
           In the event, they didn’t even get that far; an army of rat-faced beastmen met them in the farmsteads north of the city. They didn’t look like the rag-tag rabble of a beastmen army, and their banners bore symbols he’d never seen before. Oskar formed up with the Powderkegs, and loaded his pistols. Everyone was nervous.
           As they waited for von Rüdiger to sound the attack, more and more ratmen emerged, until they had three times the Empire’s number. Some of them even appeared to be carrying strange devices that looked worryingly like firearms. Then, just as von Rüdiger gave the command to engage, the ratmen began their charge. They moved with impossible speed. Over on the right, a pack of horse-sized rats bounded across the open ground and overwhelmed the crossbowmen defending the Powderkegs’ flank. In the centre, von Rüdiger’s knights could barely be seen among the rats swarming around them. The Helblaster volley gun whose presence had so reassured Oskar during the march seemed to make little difference against such numbers. Soon, despite repeated volleys from the Powderkegs’ handguns, the ratmen were upon them. It wasn’t a battle; it was a massacre. Barely fifteen minutes after the first horn call, the Empire army was routed.
           Oskar kept a few of the Powderkegs together and fought a fighting withdrawal, but even so, many of the men who had triumphed against the undead only days before were dragged off screaming. Some were fallen upon and eaten, or stabbed. Others were bound in irons, for what purpose Oskar could only guess at.
           It would not be long before sunset, he realised. “Back into the Drakwald!” he shouted. If these were not normal beastmen, perhaps they might not fare so well in the unfamiliar surroundings of the forest. It was a desperate hope, but the only one left to the survivors.
           Imperial troops were fleeing in all directions; most of them would be picked off one at a time, but those near Oskar rallied to him as he fell back into the Drakwald. Upon reaching the forest, it became clear that the ratmen were pursuing the easiest targets – the wounded or the solitary. As Oskar and the Powderkegs ran through the trees, they bumped into a few other scattered soldiers from the Blades of Taal, and further on, slumped against the wall of an abandoned cottage, they found Amelia. Blood was running from her nose, ears, and tear ducts.
           “What in Sigmar’s name happened to you?” he asked her. “Can you walk?” She nodded, and he helped her up. “Dietrich,” he said to one of the Powderkegs, “help her along. I need to reload.”
           “Do you think they’ll come after us?” old Brother Fabian asked, breathing hard.
           “I should think so. Keep moving, but be quiet about it. Don’t shoot unless you have to, and for Taal’s sake, don’t run off on your own. It’s a long damn way back to Fort Schippel.”

The campaign map halfway through the week

* * *

Ok ladies and gentlethings, that’s it for part four. One more post should take us to the end of the campaign week narrative, at which point we’ll go back to talking about the more game-y aspects of the thing: scenario concepts, things we learned about our armies and how they play, and so on.

If you have any thoughts on how the story’s unfolding so far, or the way in which it’s being told, drop some feedback below the post! I’m sorry about the dearth of images; we just don’t have any photos from the first half of the week, but there will be photos galore for the finale. Honest.

~Charlie 

4 comments:

  1. Awesome stuff man! I really enjoyed reading that. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Yay! It's highly reassuring to know that this stuff is actually, you know, entertaining. Fictionalised stuff in blog format can smack strongly of self-indulgence, but if it's amusing people, then it's clearly worth the effort :)

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  2. What a cracking good yarn! Anyone would think you were an author or summat ;)

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