Strange Skies: Fortune Favors the Bold

I promised to share the events of Strange Skies, the campaign I’m running that includes over half of our Catholic Geeks writers. That was a few weeks ago, so it’s high time I fulfill that promise. And, since we just came to the end of our first major storyline, it seems an excellent time to recap things for my players as well.

After all, guys, you know that what you just faced is simply the beginning of something greater.

RPG major story arc

First, I should give you an idea of how much we have ahead of us. I’m not going to do a night-by-night recap, at least until we get caught up (and maybe not even then). Last Friday was our twentieth session, and closed out our fifth chapter as two of our characters completed major goals and a third started something new.

Right now, I divide everything up by roughly four-session “chapters,” letting me do a rough three-act structure format to the storyline. Generally speaking (and I do mean generally; this is a cooperative game and unlike with most fiction it’s very hard to go try a second draft), this means that the first session is an introduction to the new problem; the second session changes the problem; the third ramps up the stakes; and the fourth resolves the problem and sets up consequences. When I craft a story, I set up some basic outcomes, with a few other variables to see what kind of clues might have been discovered or new consequences obtained.

Of course, I also wing things. In fact, several times in this campaign, as in others I’ve run, I’ve sat down to begin a session having no clue what I’m going to narrate. Out of the twenty sessions (so far) in Strange Skies, that has happened six times. Sometimes it happens because I didn’t come up with anything that week; sometimes it’s because I have to wait on players to make choices that I can match up with other things happening elsewhere in the story that they as of yet don’t know about.

gm-tip

The first two sessions were entirely winged; I had ideas about things that they might face, and the characters that my players had chosen of course showed what they were interested in, but I was more concerned about introducing them all to a brand-new system. Only one of my players was familiar with the Fate RPG, and he’d been looking over my shoulder as I created my hack, but the rest of them had a learning curve ahead of them. I wanted to ease them into the concepts, which are very different from more famous and more widely-played game systems.

Fortunately, Fate is designed to incorporate storytelling into the rules in ways that those other systems typically flat-out ignore. I focused on that at first, with the expectation of bringing in a very simple combat scene as well to help show how the storytelling rules carried over there as well (rather than all roleplaying stopping once the dice come out, as some of them were used to seeing). I knew where the first storyline would take them, but I needed to see what threads they would pick up first.


 

The setting started from a very small seed. I took a vague setting from a book I want to write someday, on a world called Belartis. (The name is a pun run through a mild linguistic filter. Cookies to anyone who figures it out.) I described the setting — a world dealing with major political upheaval stemming from the collapse of a corrupt empire that was in part built on slavery — and asked the players what they wanted to do. I gave them full freedom to create their own areas of the setting.

They seized on the idea of that corrupt empire to the extent that I said I would back it up a bit and set things before the empire’s collapse. I took another request to have it be less medieval and have more elements from the Renaissance and Victorian periods, including airships. The players responded, rather enthusiastically, by working up backgrounds to be part of revolutionary and abolitionist groups. One of them was even an escaped slave.

I gave them the skyship Fortuna, with one of the players as the captain, and began making plans for an intrigue-based campaign set in the Ortusian Empire. It’s a bloated juggernaut of a nation that has absorbed so many lands that, like the Roman elite, its nobility has become so isolated that most of them care more about disruptions to their social schedule than what goes on in the world. Some are trying to change that, either working within the system or decidedly outside it. It contains members of all seven races (humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, goblins, and trolls), but its nobility is dominated by humans who are mostly descended from the ancient tribe that started this empire. Over it all is Pavil IV, a spoiled twenty-something who leaves his empire to the rule of his National Minister and various bureaucrats.

The end of this campaign, whatever it is, will determine what happens to Ortusia. I don’t know what’s going to happen any more than you do. I just have a better idea of what’s really at stake.


The first chapter in Strange Skies is, as the title of this post might suggest, “Fortune Favors the Bold.”

The first character to come on the scene is Lady Isidora Seraphina Ravenna Hardwick, the Countess Becket; but if you don’t act in an uncouth manner, she might permit you to call her Lady Dory. She is a human noblewoman, slightly vapid, and has decided to see more of the Empire and possibly lands around it, and so has convinced her father, Duke Hardwick, to “loan” her the use of one of his merchant fleet’s fast gemships. She has arrived in Neiderthal, a small town in the northern regions of the Empire, where the captain of the Fortuna has been told to expect her. She’s brought her orcish lady’s maid, Zuzan, and a respectable amount of luggage.

Of course, Lady Dory is not all that she seems. She’s played by Lori, and if you’ve read her posts here on The Catholic Geeks, you know she’s not the type to enjoy playing a stuck-up noblewoman. Instead, she’s drawing on heavy inspiration from Finishing School, a YA series about a school in a Victorian steampunk fantasy England where young ladies are trained in the arts of espionage, assassination, and needlework.

Etiquette and Espionage

Lady Dory is an only child, and plays a carefree and somewhat spoiled noblewoman in public so as to be more useful to her father the duke in private. In addition to spreading his trade interests throughout the Empire and beyond, he’s also trying to get slavery abolished and create a more accountable government. So far, he’s having much more success behind closed doors than he is in open debate in the House of Nobles, but perhaps that says more about the Empire than his own skill.

After an amusing scene where Zuzan chastises the Fortuna‘s bosun (another orc, an ex-slave named Sona Vibnich and known as Bigson on the ship; I narrate him with a Russian accent) for not being polite enough to suit her standards, we meet Captain Jack Ketch, played by my friend Jason. Jack Ketch is a (mostly) former pirate who has met Lady Dory once before, after he’d gate-crashed one of Duke Hardwick’s parties. Rather than simply have the rascal arrested, the Duke made his position clear, and then offered Jack a job. Now he’s the captain of a new-model gemship, faster than the more conventional liftships using bags of alchemical gasses to stay aloft, and tasked as a fast courier and armed merchant cruiser. He’s already done several covert jobs for the Duke, and knows that his real mission at present — barring direct instructions from Duke Hardwick — is to provide Lady Dory with transportation and support as she needs to fulfill her own missions.

Two other characters arrived at the same time: Esten, a scholar looking for a quick trip out of town in advance of people who want him somewhere between “dead” and “very dead”; and Pip, an escaped slave who successfully stows away on the ship without being spotted. It’s a fairly neat trick, since Neiderthal isn’t a big enough town to have a skyport with a proper gemship dock and all movement on and off the ship used air-skiffs and cranes. (Since gemships are kept aloft by magic, they continually use up power just hovering in place; a gemship dock provides a place for them to rest and power down.) That’s what you get when you’re optimized for stealth and keep rolling high!

Esten was played by CG’s Andy Hauge, but sadly he was only around for the first two sessions. He had to leave due to his job changing his schedule and being unable to meet on Friday. Since then, his slot was taken and the game is at seven players now (my hard-and-fast capacity), so someone has to leave before he can come back in. Still, Esten might show up as an NPC again, as one of his character hooks has become very relevant.

Pip was played by Alicia, Jason’s wife; she had to leave after nine sessions, as the game wasn’t working out for her due to health reasons (and the fact that as we’re all meeting via webcam, she kept getting distracted by shiny things online). She had an interesting character, though, as she was playing an escaped female elven slave disguised as a human boy. She specialized in stealth and disguise, with a clever arrangement of skills that reflected what she had been trained for as a slave (hint: it had nothing to do with cooking) while helping her as a spy and rogue-type character. She also, due to her traumas as a slave, severe PTSD that would shape how she reacted to things.

In our first session, as I said, Pip managed to stow away on the Fortuna without being spotted. In fact, she managed to go almost the whole session without being found. I kept expecting her to be discovered by the crew, but she managed to go an entire in-story day without being discovered. If it weren’t for the pirates, she could have stayed there for the whole trip.

Oh, right. Pirates. They showed up.

Commandeer

As the Fortuna continued on to Lugendorf, where they were to meet up with another ally, skirting the edges of a storm, the lookout spotted something unusual: two liftships headed into that same storm. Since only a gemship would ever want to be in a storm (and even then, only in a somewhat risky maneuver to recharge its power crystals with lightning strikes), there had to be a very good reason for this. Sure enough, the flash of crystal cannon discharges showed that the ship in the lead was running from the other two.

Now, Captain Jack Sparrow might be a bit of a pirate, but his prey is slaver ships and those that profit from such a practice. Besides, the fact that a liftship was headed into a storm indicated desperation; and it was a good chance to show off for the boss’ daughter.

“Beat to quarters!” the call went out. The Fortuna was at a higher elevation, and moves quite fast compared to a liftship; they easily managed to avoid the pirates’ Perception rolls until they were nearly on top of them. (Clearly, the pirates were not the best of the bunch, nor particularly observant.) They also found that the fleeing ship was flying Duke Hardwick’s own merchant colors, which meant this was their actual job anyway; but Jack had committed before he knew that. He was irritated at them interrupting his dinner with Lady Dory, Esten, and his first mate Slyvin; in fact, he was still carrying his dinner knife when he went out on deck.

Daredevil that he was, Captain Jack swung across on a line before the grapples were secure (much less before the safety net was strung), trusting in his high Athletics to carry the day. Once on the enemy deck, he started laying into the pirates, only to find the pirate captain was a sorcerer.

Fortunately, Lady Dory turned out to be handy with a blade, and Esten was a wizard himself. Together with the crew of the Fortuna — especially Bigson, who followed his fool captain across at the same time, since who else was going to keep the idiot safe? — they kept the pirates off of him. Additional help came from a young “boy” (Pip), who suddenly appeared in the middle of the battle.

Soon, Captain Jack made his way over to the command deck, engaging the pirate captain directly. The enemy captain tried using magic against him, but Captain Jack easily dodged it; and he returned with a single well-placed strike using the steak knife he was still carrying in one hand. “That’s for interrupting my dinner!” he yelled.

With the enemy captain subdued, the pirates soon surrendered. The Fortuna crew secured them in the hold, and organized a prize crew to take it with them to port. A search of the captain’s cabin lead Jack to find charts marked with shipping lanes that seemed to highlight likely Hardwick Shipping routes, as well as a hidden compartment containing the pirate’s money chest and a single sealed letter.

To my surprise, Jason chose not to have Jack open the letter; he pocketed it instead, and went back out on deck to discover that the Hardwick Shipping vessel had reversed course and was headed to their position. When they had all gathered, they discovered that the pirates had likely been after a specific packet of top secret information that one of the duke’s men was carrying on that ship.

During this discussion, Captain Jack pulled out the sealed letter, and Esten examined it to find that it was protected by a magical ward; what it did, he couldn’t tell, but it clearly drew on fire magic. The players concluded that it was a self-destruct spell, to remove evidence if it were opened in the wrong way. Plus, that captain had been throwing around fireballs, so it may require magic like his to open. Esten was able to confirm that the delicate workings of that particular spell seemed to be beyond the more clumsy pyromancy the sorcerer had been wielding, so it was highly unlikely that the pirate was the intended recipient.

(Note: in my system, wizards focus on elements; so not everyone can access fire magic. Esten used aether and ice magic. Further, wizards come in four different types depending on how they focus their magic: magicians focus on learning and ritual; runecasters use writing and physical objects; sorcerers are experts in close-range combat; and spellsingers use music. Esten was a runecaster.)

Though this letter was gained in the second session, and they’ve since been joined by their own pyromancer, they’ve yet to manage to get it open. In fact, I suspect they’ve forgotten about it. But shh. Don’t tell them they’ve got an important clue right under their noses. They might figure something out that they’ve been missing since the beginning, and then where would they be?

GM Smiling

And then they got to the next town, and the fun really started. But we’ll wait until next time to talk about that.

 

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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4 Responses to Strange Skies: Fortune Favors the Bold

  1. pops1918 says:

    Get the popcorn, this is great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ross Windsor says:

    Wait a minute… since Duke Hardwick owns the Fortuna, does this mean that Lady Dory technically outranks Captain Jack?! Someone needs to tell Feanor!

    Like

    • Not exactly. There’s a difference between the owner and the commander.

      In the Age of Sail, “master and commander” (you might remember that as the first half of a movie title) was a ship’s commanding officer, and the technical title for such in the Royal Navy until the late 18th century. (Well, more precisely, it was an actual rank between lieutenant and captain, which designated a commander of a ship too large for a lieutenant and too small for a captain. It was shortened to just “commander” in 1794. But this isn’t really important, just interesting to a Navy brat.) Captain Jack Ketch is the master and commander of the Fortuna, but he is not the owner; just like Captain Jack Aubrey is the master and commander of the HMS Surprise, but he’s not the owner either.

      Today, that doesn’t seem to make a difference. After all, whether the captain is a Navy officer or a merchant, he’s obeying the orders of someone back home. However, it’s still true today that the captain is the one in charge of his vessel; he may have to obey orders, but barring extreme circumstances he has authority over what goes on with his ship.

      This was even more true in the Age of Sail, when you couldn’t just call home for advice, clarification, or new orders. Anyone in charge of a ship had to be the final authority, because the only one who outranked him on the open waters was God. All decisions stopped with him until he got back to home port. It was a great responsibility; today, it amounts to strong tradition by comparison, but that’s where it comes from.

      But a ship can only have one captain; and so even if the company owner or an admiral is aboard, the ship usually has a designated master other than him. The owner or admiral can issue orders to go here or do that, but only as ship qua vessel; orders regarding ship qua command structure are the captain’s exclusive domain.

      So when it comes to the Fortuna, Lady Dory can order the ship to go anywhere she wants except where it impacts the safety of the ship; Captain Jack controls everything regarding persons aboard, where their stations are during battle, what duties they possess, etc. If he wanted to, he could order Lady Dory to swab the deck; he’d be fired when the Duke found out, but while they’re in the air he’s the commander.

      For a further example, Naugraam has signed on with the Fortuna, not with Lady Dorry; so while he’s technically an employee of the Duke, he’s under the Captain’s direct command. Feanor is working for Lady Sybil, who is working with Lady Dory, and so Captain Jack’s authority over Feanor extends solely as far as Feanor is aboard the ship in the first place. He is not, technically speaking, part of the crew. He’s more like Sybil’s armsman.

      If you want fun with this sort of thing, you can read the Bloody Jack series, which I’ve mentioned a few times; in the third book, the main character gets her own ship and begins her dream of starting her own shipping company. Because of her experience with the Royal Navy (disguised as a boy at first; then it gets complicated), she runs some things according to Naval expectations. Another option is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, which was the source material for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (the first half taken from the title of the first book in the series, and the second half from a later book.) They’re very useful for terminology, considering the setting of the game both in culture and in technology.

      For a sci-fi version, there’s the Honor Harrington series, which has a different set of advantages going for it. First, while it’s set two thousand years in the future, the stuff I described is still the case because no message can travel in hyperspace unless carried by a ship; effectively, you have the same situation of the captain being second only to God (a phrase often used in the series) while not in port. Second, if you want some inspirational material to draw on for being a bodyguard, the main character picks up a few by the fourth book. Third, the Emperor is loosely based on one of the villains of the first few books. And fourth, all the ebooks from the first novel to the twelfth are free. (Plus a fifth: Lori is a fan, and you can trade references during the game.)

      Like

  3. Pingback: Strange Skies: Fortune Favors the Bold (Part 2) | The Catholic Geeks

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