I ran out of time in the last segment (or rather, I decided the wall o’ text was big enough), so I wasn’t able to finish the tale of the first chapter of Strange Skies. If you missed that first installment, I’m recapping the campaign I’m running on Friday nights; and, if you’re lucky, some of the other Catholic Geeks authors who are in the game might chime in with their own accounts.
Today, we’re going to cover sessions 3-5. It’s a tale of scandal, slavers, infiltration, and high tea.
When last we left our heroes, they were on their way to Lugendorf. The pirate liftship was held by a prize crew and escorted there as well; those members of the pirate crew that wished to join the Fortuna (and passed Bigson’s muster) were allowed to join, while the rest were destined for delivery to the Lugendorf Imperial garrison. The Fortuna‘s privateer license gives them a bounty on both convicted pirates and a share of the prize money from the ship itself (albeit filtered through their parent company, so it takes some time for them to actually get that bonus).
Now, I said last time that I’ve winged several of the sessions in this campaign, with no real plan of what was going to happen. Those were sessions 1, 2, 3, 6, and 13. Yes, that means that for the first three sessions of this campaign, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen those nights.
I don’t recommend that if you’re just starting out; but any GM has to learn to think on his or her feet and respond to what the players do. I take it a little further than normal sometimes, but I can do that because of two factors: I know how stories work, and I know what is going on (mostly, anyway) off-screen, out of the player characters’ realm of knowledge. Combine that with knowing what it’s like to be a player, and I can, and have, sat down with absolutely no clue what I’m going to do, and walked out again having woven a story that my players have been not only happy with, but surprised that it was completely improv.
Experienced GMs know what I’m talking about. They also know that even though I can do it, it doesn’t mean it’s always the best idea. You need some structure. The trick is balancing it all together and being flexible whether you’ve prepared a story or not.
In the case of these first three sessions, I knew where I wanted them to go (which took place in sessions 4 and 5), and originally I was going to go right to that after the first session. It took two more because I was waiting for Ross and Olivia to show up. Had they been there from the beginning, there still would have been a combat scene; but it probably wouldn’t have been pirates. Had they been able to make the second session, they’d have been on the fleeing ship, and we would have skipped Lugendorf.
Now, though, the final two members of our group were joining us. Sadly, this was also where Andy had to take his leave, and Esten departed once the Fortuna docked at the Lugendorf skyport, clutching his MacGuffin that totally wasn’t an abridged Necronomicon. (That’s right, Esten. Run as far as you like. They’ll never stop hunting you. Ahem. But that’s someone else’s story . . . for now.)
In town, Captain Jack escorted Lady Dory to the hotel where the other characters are staying. They were trailed by Pip, she of the invincible Stealth rolls (well, invincible for now). Jack easily prevented a young boy from lifting their purses; but rather than simply letting him go, this hard-hearted pirate instead handed him a silver piece and gave him some advice on how to go about his trade.
At the hotel, they found a human woman enjoying her tea, dressed in black Bravon attire and a mischievous expression entirely at odds with her apparent state of mourning. This is Lady Sybil, or more accurately Countess Sibyl Ingrid Brunhilde Schulzbach-Freudenberger (and that’s just her short name), recently widowed but scandalously unconcerned by it. She’s played by Olivia, one of our Catholic Geeks.
Lady Sybil has a particular skillset: basically, she’s the head of a minor yet influential crime organization, specializing in smuggling and information brokering. She knows what you want, and can make you an offer you won’t want to refuse. She hails from Bravar, a modest-sized country on the Empire’s northern border (loosely based on German culture). It has a thriving economy due to both winning a geographical lottery and a long history of savvy merchant guilds.
Her companion was an elven man who looked more than a little out of place. He was not Bravon; instead, he showed the unmistakable rough-hewn look of the nomads of the Seldarin Plains, north of Bravar. The Seldari often travel other lands and frequently hire on as mercenaries. This particular specimen is Feanor, a particularly well-traveled elf skilled with both bow and sword. He’s played by Ross, also a certified Catholic Geek.
As Jack and Dory came in to the hotel’s dinning hall, Feanor got up to confront the newcomers; but Sybil waved him down, exuberantly greeting Dory with several dahlings and a couple of embarrassing questions about her love life. As it turned out, Sybil and Dory are cousins, and the former loves teasing her much more prim and proper relative. (Well, she loves shocking anyone, but Dory is a special project.)
Now that Lady Sybil and her bodyguard have joined them, they can get on with their mission from Dory’s father; and Sybil has the latest information necessary. Dory’s not going to like it, in fact. It has to do with —
But there was an interruption from outside, as an eavesdropping Pip screamed in terror. A wandering band of bounty hunters had discovered her.
See, as you recall, slavery is legal in the Empire; and particularly valuable slaves are marked with encoded magical brands for tracking purposes. Pip, being highly trained as a courtesan, was given just such a brand. Most slave brands are on the face, but slaves like her have more subtle markings; hers is on her hand, covered by a glove. It would normally be fine for her to wander around in her boy’s disguise, but these bounty hunters happened to have a magical device that alerts them if they pass by a brand that has been listed as missing.
The other characters rushed out to confront the bounty hunters, but they faced a problem: not only is slavery legal, but these bounty hunters are fully licensed and well within their rights to take Pip into custody. The party had three options: bluff them by claiming Pip was their slave, convince them that the rod was somehow malfunctioning, or fight it out and thereby break the law.
That’s another GM tip for you, people: morally-significant choices. What do you do when the right choice gets you in a heap of trouble? What do you do when there are no perfect results?
Unable to bring themselves to claiming ownership of a slave, even as a bluff, they tried talking the bounty hunters down; but that soon transitioned into a fight, in which Pip got off a rather satisfying strike to her attacker’s sensitive bits. They were in a good part of town, however, and had begun to attract a crowd. They took off at a run before the town watch could get there, thanks to one of Captain Jack’s special abilities. It’s called “A Little Bird Told Me,” and allows him to retroactively get tipped off once per scene, if he rolls high enough.
He did, and as a result he spotted the pickpocket from earlier waving him down an alley. (It pays to be nice to small children and little animals, it seems!) The urchin lead them on a roundabout path through the town, evading the authorities until they got back to the Fortuna. At the skyport, Lady Sybil was able to arrange for not only her luggage to be delivered but also a timely departure by bribing the portmaster with a bit of information she knew he wanted.
Once in the air, Lady Sybil was able to continue with the information she had been about to deliver. Lady Dory, due to her cover, had traveled a somewhat circuitous route through the Empire to finally rendezvous with the Fortuna, so the letter had come to them through
Their mission, should they choose to accept it, was to investigate a blackmailing scheme targeting Lord Bernor Hilsand, the Fourth Count of Dun Saren. Dun Saren is a relatively recent estate in the northern reaches of the Empire; its current holder is a moderately influential member of the House of Lords, and is about to host an off-season party.
Of course, dear reader, you know by now that I like offering murky, difficult choices to my players. There are four problems with this assignment.
- Count Hilsand is a political enemy of Duke Hardwick. The Duke explained in his letter that Hilsand’s blackmailer is forcing him to do things even worse for the Empire; but if they succeed, he’ll be free to continue undermining the Duke’s plans. Dory’s father is far too honorable to use the blackmail information himself.
- This must be done in utmost secrecy. Count Hilsand does not know about Dory’s real skills, nor can he know that Duke Hardwick was ever involved in this. Hilsand would suspect a catch, and probably mess things up further.
- They have no idea what he’s being blackmailed about, nor who’s doing it. The mission is to identify both; to stop it if necessary, but mostly it’s about gathering information.
- Lady Dory personally, and with passion, hates Count Hilsand’s guts. As the only child of a duke, she is currently the most eligible young lady in the Empire; and Hilsand just won’t give up.
Predictably, Lord Hilsand was absolutely delighted to find that Lady Dory had finally accepted one of his invitations, and started laying on the charm . . . or what he thought is charm, at least. He served with minor distinction as a cavalry officer, and not only does he think this makes him a great war hero, but he also won’t shut up about his horses.
Captain Jack, as it turned out, is more than capable of faking genteel behavior; and while the count faltered a bit as he realized Dory was being escorted not only by a commoner, not only by a commoner skyship captain, but by a commoner skyship merchant captain, he eventually decided to show off a bit. A verbal testosterone-flexing context soon rose up, which Captain Jack soon won due to his exploits having actual drama behind them. In fact, a small crowd of appreciative listeners gathered around to hear more. This gave Dory, Sybil, and Feanor the opportunity to move through the party to gather information. During this time, they met several other NPCs.
Meanwhile, Pip managed to infiltrate in another direction: down into the servants’ halls, disguised as a young footman in Hardwick’s house colors. Living on the run for a few months had given her a healthy appreciation for not only food, but also what those who make it know. Given her appearance as a too-skinny human teen boy, she got some sympathy food from the kitchen staff as well as information (though given her appearance as a very good-looking boy, she also had to figure out how to disengage from a kitchen maid who wanted to sneak off for a few stolen kisses). She soon learned that the count had essentially imprisoned his younger sister, furious over what the staff reported as a tryst between her and an undesirable person. They had once even been caught at an old and crumbling gameskeeper’s cottage out on a cliffside at the edge of the manor lands.
While Pip was doing that, Jack, Dory, and Feanor managed to sneak into the count’s study, thanks to Dory feigning weakness and needing a place to lie down. Lady Sybil remained out in the ballroom, distracting Hilsand by insisting that he show her his stable. After some frustrated searching, the crew finally discovered Hilsand’s hidden safe, and Jack easily opened it. Inside, among other papers, was a crumpled letter, which looked like it had been thrown inside in anger. Along with the blackmail note promising the possession of more material, they found a love letter to a cavalry officer, going into scandalously intimate detail, and signed “K.”
Out on the floor, at this moment, Lady Sybil was introduced to Katerine Hilsand, Count Hilsand’s fifteen-year-old sister. That ended the fourth session.
The fifth began with Dory, Jack, and Feanor extricating themselves from the study without getting caught (just barely) and moving back into the party. Now that they knew the blackmail was over a romantic scandal and preyed on Hilsand’s pride and ambition (as an out of character note, if any of the male players had chosen to play noblemen, Hilsand would have been feeling them out for a marriage alliance using his sister), they had to decide how to proceed.
Now that they knew who to look for, they quickly spotted the young cavalry officer, Peder Harte, wearing a uniform from the same regiment as Count Hilsand. As they tried to warn him off, Jack — his already low opinion of Hilsand plummeting further — decided to try lifting Hilsand’s medals from his chest. He actually succeeded in doing so with one of them, all while in plain sight.
During this time, Pip had made her way through the grounds, and managed to perch on a wall above a window despite having absolutely no upper arm strength. (No ranks in Athletics, which is what is needed to climb in this game.) She did so in time to hear a blonde woman inform a young cavalry officer — Peder, though Pip didn’t know it yet — about how Lady Katerine would meet them in their “usual spot.” After Peder left, another man approached the blonde woman, letting her know that everything had been prepared.
Now, at this time, even the crew of the Fortuna was unaware that Pip wasn’t actually a human boy; despite everything, her disguise had remained intact, even to the point of hiding her ears. (Seriously high rolls. Where does a courtesan-trained slave learn such skill at disguise? Wait, never mind, I don’t want to know.) So Feanor was quite surprised to hear a Seldarin tap-code coming from a nearby window, identifying the sender as being Pip “him”self.
Learning about the situation outside, he and the others soon identified the blonde woman as one of the party attendees they had encountered before, Kerri; her companion, Baron Lindell Ridgeway, had been one of their primary suspects for blackmail, even though he was Hilsand’s best friend. Realizing that this woman couldn’t be up to any good, they decided to set out for the old cottage Pip had heard about from the kitchen staff, reasoning that this was the most likely place for them to meet. Leaving Sybil behind to distract the Count some more (in actuality, Olivia had to miss this week’s session, so it was more of a convenient excuse), the crew stole off into the darkness.
Sure enough, Katerine was soon spotted rushing along the path; but the group didn’t intercept her. They waited for Kerri to arrive, with two men following her. Neither of them were familiar; both wore servants’ garb, one in the colors of Dun Saren, and the other was identified by Dory as belonging to Hilsand’s friend. The trio moved forward, after Katerine, but did not notice our heroes creeping along behind them.
Peder was already there, but the lover’s joyful reunion was marred when one of the footmen produced a magical light using fire magic. Kerri, who had acted the brainless twit in the ballroom, now seemed equal parts smug and bored. She calmly informed them that they would be both coming with her; they had no choice in the matter, but if they came quietly then she would provide them the with ability to elope.
Our heroes then moved in, ambushing the ambushers. After a brief scuffle, in which Jack used Hilsand’s own medal as a shuriken, the two henchmen were subdued. Kerri, however, escaped into the darkness. Dory wasn’t even able to identify her by accent or fighting style — though her absolutely perfect Oresmi speech, as the song goes, suggested foreign birth.
Who was she? Is she actually foreign, and is that why Dory wasn’t able to identify who taught her? Does she really have a connection to Baron Ridgeway, or was he just a convenient dupe like she claimed? What did she want with the two lovers, and why would someone want to interrupt their successful blackmail scheme with a kidnapping?
Perhaps the answers will come soon. Or perhaps the GM is just being evil.
Hint: the GM is always evil.