Red Eyes in Black ~ A Campaign Journal From the GM's Side of the Screen


I'm sticking this here for now as a placeholder to encourage me to start actually writing this as i mentioned elsewhere that I would. We played the second session last night and I can already tell it's going to monolithic and awesome. I've felt the New Relationship Energy with campaigns before...and this isn't that. This is the real deal. I'm off to start a new job this morning that doesn't involve breaking all my fingernails and stabbing myself with screws, so I haven't the time to go into too much detail beyond a the broad strokes of the campaign's intention and a brief sketch of the character.

My girlfriend was always interested in roleplaying, even before her and I got together, but not enough to play. We worked together when we first met and she would listen to me ramble on about my roleplaying experiences. She's been an avid video gamer since she was 8 and there was somethihng about roleplaying that didn't resonate with her at first. After we got together and then ended up living together all it took was her being upstairs playing one of our XBox 360s while I was running a session downstairs for her to ask me later if she could make a charatcer and join in. What she heard going on was a million miles form what she expected to hear; she saw in it something that she could sink her teeth into that video games would never provide.

For the next year and a half I ran a campaign I've mentioned on here destrying a world just so I could say I did it. She liked it, don't get me wrong, but there was something missing for her. It just didn't esonate because unlike with my other players I had yet to have the much-duscussed "discovery conversation" with her. Eventually I did, and what we're playing now stemmed from that. More than anything, she wanted to experience a campaign that was long, epic, involved, deep, and changed the world permanently through her character's actions. All of this stemmed from her desire to become part of my ongoing out-of-game story about my experiences as a career gamemaster.

My end of the campaign in one sentence; darkness from the past rears it's head in a land of shadows and mystery. That's it. That's my "mission statement" as it were. That's the theme. I'll explore that theme extensively on many levels, but everything needs a starting point.

I found my starting point in the Pathfinder adventure path Carrion Crown. I'll often take some prepublished idea and use it as a skeleton to hang the other 75% or so of the campaign upon. This one suited what she had already outlined as her character's background perfectly. I've glanace through all 6 parts of it, but I know I won't get much past the halfway mark of part 2 before it goes completely organic and does it's own thing. Knowing this is paramount to success as a gamemaster as all the Gamegreners likely already know. You get to far ahead of yourself and you just get let down.

This is the broad stroke of the introduction; the PC is attending the funeral of her mentor from the mortal sciences university she studies at in a "nearby" city in a nation shrouded in the darkness of a sinister past. His death turns out to be anything but the accident that it was assumed ot be, and her investigations inot his dmeise lead her to a dark conspiracy that will eventually unfold to include her deceased father; a priest of the god of knowledge whose footsteps she walks in now that he is gone and someone needs ot carry on his work and legacy. It's sort of Ravenlofty, sort of Call of Cthulhuy, sort of action adenturey. What I'm kicking in on my own is the emphasis on the progress of scienbce and how it will one day outstrip magic in it's potential to effect change in the world. It's taking place in a fantasy setting of my own design that so far is my proudest creation as a gamemaster, moreso even than the last setting that was in development and play for something like 15 years. I'll go into specifics later.

Venni Lohnarr, the PC; a 15 year old neophyte in service to the god of knowledge that is a "mortla sciences" student at a university in a learned city. She now finds herself in a small and superstitious town with no trust for outsiders at all. trying to get on their good side (as small as that side might be) so that they can aid her in her quest to discover what acatually happened to her mentor while he explored what he thought to be a dire plot by a little understood cult from the past of this shadowed land. She's a "cleric" I suppose you could say, but one trained almost as equally in the ways of combat by her mother, a drunken mercenary she no longer speaks to. In game terms she is part Adept, part Warrior. I'll go into detail on that as well tonight, giving setting details that will make the specifics of how magic works inthis particular setting and where she fits into that model.

Two sessions in and she almost died horribly already. Thank whoever for that red plot chip...

As I said, details later. It suffices to say that unlike in traditional D&D or d20 rules, in the True20 rules system a skeleton CAN in fact kill you rather messily; Venni now has the bite mark scars by her eye and on her neck and jaw to prove it.....sometimes all you can do is run and jump through the hole in the crumbling wall into the murky and stagnant pond in the sinkhole outside and wish you'd made a better plan before going off half cocked into a place that took the life of someone far more powerful than you.

You'd think that his funeral, the prompting event at the beginning of the campaign, would have spoken as to the lethality of what he was involved in...but we all know how players are, right?

"we all know how players are, right?"

GM's always send mixed messages though. His funeral is a warning, but it also sets the tone. Every adventure is foreshadowed by doom. Imagine the following...

GM: "The way to Castle Forlorn is treacherous. It lies on the far side of the Hollow-wood, a cruel and dangerous place that has long been a refuge for thieves and briggands. The road immediately ahead of you is muddy -- made worse by the unrelenting cold rain. Your horses need to be urged along .."

Bob: "Wait."

GM: "Yes?"

Bob: "Let's wait until it is sunny."

GM: "ummm..."

Sally: "Ya, we can wait a week or two until the weather is better. Maybe we could take a carriage to pastoral Brightwick, then charter a skiff to take us on to Castle Forlorn along the coast. We would skip the Hollow-wood altogether."

Burt: "Castle Forlorn sounds a bit dangerous too. We could hire some mercenaries in Brightwick and send them on ahead.. just to see what kind of trouble is waiting."

There is a compact between player and GM that the players will take on risky enterprises, so long as they agree to do it with trepidation.

"His funeral is a warning, but it also sets the tone. Every adventure is foreshadowed by doom."

-That was precisely my point. That we all already know how players are...and why.

Just thought is was worth pointing out.

Let us know how that adventure path works out.

Wow. Trying to remember to update something like this is a pain in the ass. We've played 9 sessions now and I've still yet to put down only the barest of details about the first session. El oh el.

I don't think I have the ability to write things in brief anymore so I'm going to write this as I would if it was one of my writing projects. Maybe that's a good thing. It'll make it more fun to read at any rate. After each section I'll post again with the "behind the screen" interpretation of events and all those little things that pop up in a GMs mind.
Ravengro. A tiny little smudge on the map between a swamp and a lake along a sluggish river. Ravengro wasn't the place you'd expect to find Venni Lohnarr, her being a rather metropolitan type more accustomed ot the libraries and lecture halls of Lepidstadt to the north. There she was though, riding Ronan through the fog down the muddy path that lead to the Sacristy of Mormekar. In a deeply cowled black robe one of the Ministers was sweeping the cobbles in front of the tall doors with less enthusiasm than she thought possible. He turned his pockmarked face up to her as she came to a stop and licked his slack lips with a swollen looking tongue.

"I'm looking for..." she checked the invitation in her hand for the name of the place, "...the Restlands."

Bending back to his task he gestured lazily down the north east fork of the road, saying nothing with his voice but speaking volumes with his body language. He didn't care. Not about her, not about the cobbles he was sweeping, not much about anything. Venni turned the big chestnut horse and headed where he'd pointed. Across the river she could see the town, such as it was. A cluttered circle of buildings around a central clearing that housed a peeling gazebo. If there was more to Ravengro she couldn't see it through Lornesse's everpresent fog and mist, and doubted it would matter at any rate. She was here for the funeral of her mentor, Professor Petros Lorrimor. After that she was back to Lepidstadt, back to her studies, back to warm beds and sleeping late and away from this depressing little mark on her map.

The dismal trail, no doubt a major road to the people of this place, stopped in front of a large tangle of willows and other short trees ringed by a low iron fence hung somewhere between "old" and "decrepit". The arch of iron above the gate had a sign hanging from it that told her she'd arrived at the Restlands. If the sign hadn't been there she still would ahve known; why else would there be a half dozen people trying their best to look dressed in dark finery with a casket of black wood at their feet?

"Is one of you Kendra?" Venni asked as she slid from her saddle on Ronan's back. "I'm Venni Lohanarr. From Lepidstadt."

Venni was used to people looking down their noses at her. At 15 she was the youngest student in the Applied Mythology program at LU. If it hadn't been for Professor Lorrimor's recommendation she would still be in entry level courses doing entry level things with entry level people. She'd been able to skip all that nonsense (who needs maths to study ghosts?) after sidelining him for serious conversation after one of his rare lectures at the university. He was taken with her keen intellect immediately and had many strings to pull in many places. And pull them he had, leapfrogging her ahead of three years of drudgery and pointless study in pointless subjects. She had no real friends on campus because of it, but she wasn't at LU to make friends and imress people...she was there to find out what had killed her father. The way these Ravengro locals looked at her though was different still. A different disdain, a different suspicion.

'small town Lornessi,' she thought to herself. 'all the same.'

"I'm Kendra Lorrimor," a woman said, stepping forward looking sad. A well dressed woman; by city standards too, not backwater standards. "My father spoke highly of you."

Nervously a fat man with a huge fake grin greeted her as well and introduced himself. Zokar, Zokal, Zakar...something like that. Venni didn't care, she only filed away that which may come up again later and she'd be gone back towards Lepidstadt before nightfall. A small boy, the fat man's son, must have felt an uncommon spike of courage as he stepped out from behind the ample cover provided by his father only to realize he was now standing face to face with a stranger. He blushed and moved to take cover again, freezing in place when Venni smiled at him and waved.

"Can I...can I see the horses...?" he asked his father timidly.

"Don't bother strangers," his rotund father...Zekal, Zokal, Zakal, whatever...scolded him with a deep frown.

"It's fine," Venni said, more to the boy than his father. "His name is Ronan"

As the young man stepped cautiously towards the horse Venni tried to introduce herself to the rest of them, more out of some sense of propriety than any real desire to make their acquintance. Two town counsellors, another fat man and a woman who didn't even bother hiding her distrust and disgust at the presence of an outsider.

"We're only waiting for one more," Kendra said. "A friend of my fathers."

"This is it?" Venni asked, trying not to sound upset and failing miserably. "Don't the people of this place know who your father was?"

Kendra looked over her shoulder at the few gathered for the funeral and Venni couldn't tell if the look of apology on her face was for her benefit or their's. "My father had few friends here. Most of those close to him were from...abroad. His work was not appreciated here as much as perhaps in other parts of Lornesse."

"Hmph," Venni grunted, eyeing the counsellors and the fat tavern owner. Ronan sensed her tension and pawed at the mud with his hoof, causing the boy to jump back behind his father and earning him another scolding for bothering the animal.

"Oh, here she comes now," Kendra said in a small sad voice, pointing down another road from the town. A small hunched woman in a black shawl with a basket of dried flowers shuffled through the mud towards them. As she drew nearer she looked older and older to the point where, when she was finally standing there, Venni thought perhaps she was as old as Ravengro itself.

"We can begin now," Kendra said to them all, looking down at the casket before turning to Venni once more. "I would be honored if you would serve as a pallbearer."

"Of course, as would I," Venni replied sincerely, stooping to take one corner of the coffin. The rest, even the old relic of a woman who'd just arrived, did likewise, and they passed through the gate and into the Restlands.

Graveyards in Lornesse always seemed to be morbid places, and the funeral swithin them morbid affairs, but the Restalnds took this concept and expanded on it to the point of making morbid an artform. The thickets of willow, both the weeping variety and otherwise. choked off every available nook, cranny, and corner. Between the trees and even on the humps formed by their roots in the soft and moist soil the graves and their markers crowded and fought for space. The branches arched over the pathway, blocking what little light could fight through the perpetual gloom of the grey and clouded Lornessi sky. Their leaf-bare branches did little however to stop the slight mist of rain that had started ot ooze from the air itself. It was always that way in Lornesse, even more so in the northern Palatinates. It was as if the fog simply grew tired of being fog and so became rain instead.

The procession made it's way from the gate to the grave as was the tradition of the Mormekim faith. Halfway along their route however, at an intersection of one crowded lane and another, a group of men blocked their path. Townsfolk, commoners, half a dozen of them. Some with pitchforks, some with cudgels, on with a shovel that Venni was certain had nothing to do with digging graves.

"What's this then?" the tavern owner asked. Zipil, Zafar, Zamfir, whatever.

"Gibs?" asked the fat town counsellor through his flabby face as the one with the cudgel stepped forward to block theri path. "Gibs, what are up to?"

"You're not putting that body in our ground, no way are you doin' that," he spouted off to no one in particular.

'rubes,' Venni thought, waiting to see how this would play out.

The vacant eyed and drunk-smelling man with the cudgel, tall like a tree and still wearing a nightcap, was looking right at Kendra now. "You're not planting that here! We've been talking and we don't want that Lorrimor buried in the Restlands! You can take him and bury him upriver if you like, but you're not putting him in theg round here!"

"What are you talking about?" Kendra cried out. "I've arranged this already with the Mormekim, GFawther Grimburrow is at the grave waiting even now! It's already been d..."

"You aren't listening!" the big man yelled. "Ain't no way some necromancer is being buried in the same place as our kin! Now go while you still can!"

"Put the coffin down," Venni said quietly, then again louder to be heard over Kendra's assertions of the big man's ignorance. "Put the coffin down!"

She stepped forward and stopped only a couple of steps, one long stride or lunge really, away from the oaf with the cudgel. He looked down at her with a sneer and his pack of poorly armed cronies moved up behind him.

"This man was no necromancer," she said up to him, trying not to finish her sentence with all the other things she longed to say to him. "Now show respect and move aside."

"Not happnenin'," he said through his clenched teeth as he tightened his grip on the handle of his wooden maul.

To his credit the fat counsellor, Heathwood or something like that, stepped forward then and spoke.

"Now Gibs, we don't need any trouble. I know that Mr. Lorrimor's work..."

"Professor," Venni interjected.

"...Professor Lorrimor's work wasn't understood, but I hardly think we can call him a necro..."

"He was a necromancer!" Gibs roared.

The rest of the funeral party looked on in fear or shock or both, the fat counsellor..Heatmarth, Harkwack, whatever...was spluttering and faltering, and Kendra was crying tears of both grief and rage as she stalked up to Gibs and reached back her hand to strike him. He backhanded her acaross the face, Counsellor Hatworth stepped between the two of them, and then Gibs struck him across the jaw with the handle of the cudgel. Venni had had enough.

"Alright, fine then," she said under her breath as she slid her keymarked shield over her arm and brought it in front of her while she unhooked her great spiked mace from her belt and hefted it with a shrug of her right shoulder. "We'll do it your way then."

Seeing the stranger armed, the pack of rubes all moved at once. The first one came with his pitchfork; a slight shift of balance, sliding one foot back in the mud, raising the shield ever so slightly and changing its angle so the tines scrap[ed it's face and went up over her head. The second swung his shovel at her legs; a lowering of the morningstar's head, a twist of her wrist, a loud sound as he hit metal instead of flesh and his blow clanged to a halt and the shock and vibration ran up his arms. Another on her left, trying to throw his arms around her like a clumsy tavern fighter; a shift at the shoulder, the shield between them, his teeth on its top edge as she shoved him back away. A bit of space around her, feet apart now, looking back to Gibs and his cudgel, winking at him over the shield as she spun the spiked head of the mace around with a rotation of her wrist.

Gibs let out a loud yell and brought the cudgel over his head and down in one long, slow, oafish stroke. Venni took a small step forward, getting under his arms and shoving his blow back upwards, leaning bakc and then forward again to slam the face of her shield into his face. Off balance already, Gibs tumbvled ot his ass in the muck and she couldn't suppress a single "Ha!" as he looked up in surprise at his new position.

Around her things were going sideways. The couselwoman was on her knees in the mud beside the fat counselman who'd taken the cudgel to his jaw. The tavern owner was struggling with the man with the shovel, the two of them wrestling over it like gladiators fighting for the last spear. The old woman was trying to keep Kendra from jumpoing into the fray. The boy was hiding behind the coffin, peeking up to look at his father with awe in his eyes. The one with the pitchfork lunged at her again but pulled up short when she moved her shield wide as if to invite him in and brought her morningstar back for a swing that would rub out what few looks he had for good. She looked back down at Gibs, just now pushing himself up to his feet.

"Well?" she asked, calm in the center of the melee.

"This ain't over!" Gibs yelled, stomping off with his cronies in tow. He looked surprised, maybe even shocked, at how events had played out.

"...I've seen him get a little crazy, but he usually isn't like this. Not even when he'ds drunk!" the tavern owner was saying to the fat counselman as he helped the counselwoman get him upright.

"What's wrong with your town?" Venni asked no one in particular. She turned to Kendra, who was wiping her mouth. Blood on her lips, blood on her hand, a look of disgust on her face. "Seriously, what wrong with you people?"

"Gibs is an ass," Kendra said, wiping her fingers with a smnall square of white line she'd produced form a small pocket in her black dress.

"Thank you," the counselman said, his jowels shaking as he fought for breath. "Thank you for...for stopping him."

Except for Kendra they all looked at her worse than before. Their suspicion had turned to fear. The boy was still hiding behind the casket in the mud.

'bumpkins,' she though to herself.

"Come," Kendra said, struggling for composure. "Let's bury my father."

The funeral was standard Mormekim fair. A short intonation by the attending priest, a man that looked old enough he should be dead himself, followed by long speeches by those who'd come to see the Professor off. Venn had more to say than any of them, but by now that didn't surprise her. The Professor had been so well respected in the circles she moved in that it had never occured to her that in his own small town he was just that weird old man who lived across the bridge. When it was over she found herself outside the gate to the Restlans with Kendra and the old woman. After bidding her a fond farewell, she at least had seemed genuinely upset over his passing, Kendra invited Venni back to her home.

"I really should be leaving so I am not stuck on the road when night falls," Venni explained, wanting to get as much distance from Ravengro as possible. It's true that the roads of Lornesse were dangerous at night; things lurked in the shadows and swamps at the best of times, but after the sun was below the horizon they stopped lurking and started stalking. She had other reasons to get away from this place however. It reminded her too much of a home she had left behind when she opted for a life of study in the city.

"I'm afraid you can't leave yet," Kendra told her. Venni swiveled her head to look at the grieving woman, the daughter of her mentor.

"Oh no?" she asked Kendra, wondering 'what fresh hell is this, then?'

"No, I'm sorry. There's still the reading of the will..."

So this first session was important for several reasons (as all first sessions in a campaign are). Above I've only posted an account of half the session, but before posting the rest I'm going to wax analytical about exactly what it was that was so important about it.

1) Tone
We all know this one, but it bears repeating. The tone of this campaign is somewhat darker than others I've run for this player. Don't get me wrong, there's often a fair amount of grit under the nails in anything I run, but this is different. It's another sort of "dark". Isolation, paranoia, suspicion...these things are all central to the look and feel of this part of the setting. It would be a wee bit inaccurate to compare it to Ravenloft, but I'd understand if someone made that comparison. Essential to a good start was setting out right away that people don't trust each other. They're suspicious of outsiders. Perception is reality and gossip shapes perception to a high degree. Also essential was to lay out right away that the PC is not at home. Currently, 9 sessions in, she has returned home only to find it a bit different. Normally I would have done this by starting the campaign at home, having the PC go somewhere else that is markedly different, and then subtly describe the differences once she got back. Instead, I started the campaign in another town and illustrated my point by constantly pointing out the differences between where she was and what she was used to.

It worked, nuff said.

2) Look & Feel

Lornesse, the collection of principalities where the campaign takes place, is sinister. If I'd started the campaign in the city the PC calls home I wouldn't have been able to illustrate this as well as I would have liked because it's somewhat less sinister than everywhere else; a little beacon of reason and learning in the mist shrouded moors and clawing, brooding, darkened forests. The character of course knows this, but the player didn't at first. In order to get across the proper look & feel it was necessary to start off out of the city. Had I began in it, then when she finally left for one reason or another she would have felt the brooding doom in a different way. It had to look & feel sinister, but without being frightening. It had to be "brooding is normal", not "oh wait...why is the atmosphere so brooding?" This to avoid the false sense that there was some deeper reason behind the brooding atmosphere.

Also, this was important so as to instill in the player the unspoken knowledge that she and others from the city she's from are not like the rest of the country. THis isn't entirely true, they're not that different, but I needed the player to feel that she was. City folk where she's from have a rather disdainful attitude towards their more rural counterparts and faced with the choice between "telll the player this and let her roleplay it" or "force that reaction naturally", I always opt for the latter.

3) Foreshadowing

Gibs turns out to be far more than an ass. Pathos for the young son of the tavern owner needed to be established. Kendra really is the only person that the character could trust or rely on to begin with. The Sacristy of Mormekar is a rather dark and introspective place. All these things needed to be plain and obvious so that I didn't have to use a heavy hand later to get these subtelties across.

4) Violence

While there is plenty of violence to be had in the campaign, it had to be real immediately. It is quick, brutal, and final. Ignorant townsfolk make a far better first encounter if this is what you want to get across than some bulk enemy or creature on the road. They're real people with hopes and dreams and families and such. At no point did she swing that great spiked mace in earnest because she was at her mentor's funeral, two town councellors were standing right there, and she wasfacing real people as reluctant combatants...making her a reluctant combatant as well. Smashing your foes is often the worst way to handle situations that will come up in this campaign and so now that precedent is set. The trust of the people of this town was also really important to gain and so seeing after this encountewr how they looked at her as the story of what happened in the Restlands spread through the town reinforced this. Gibs is an ass...but he's *their* ass, while she is an outsider. There was no "oh, thanks for being our hero" after this encounter. Instead there was behind the hand murmuring of "it's her, the one from the city who broke Caspar's teeth".

Also, without hit points as a buffer, violence in the True20 system is a brutal and final thing. You can kill someone without even meaning to. The player knew this already but it had never been as big of a deal as it is in this particular campaign. Restraint is something you shrug off when the time comes to throw down, not something you turn on when you aren't killings orcs or what have you. It's a small difference in POV towards combat, but one that I feel is very important. Violence is a final option, and those that don't see it that way are seen as being truly brutal and thugish in this setting. In many settings or campaigns this passes as no big deal; I don't like that. If you were sitting in a tavern, the real you, and someone walked in who is known to have taken the lives of dozens, how would you feel about them? How would you look at them? The casual acceptance of violent people is something I don't care for in traditional fantasy, and a good way to get over it is to make the combatants real people with names and faces instead of blank faced entries on a combat tracker.

Having said that, the fact that this little group of ignorants and their lynchpin Gibs attacked a funeral procession raised questions in the player's mind; which is also exactly what I wanted. Who would do such a thing? And why? What was it about her mentor that she didn't know? What drove these men to such a bold set of actions? Could she have done anything different to stop it? Was it her fault? Was she being too idealistic?

Nine sessions in she still hasn't taken the life of one single living thing; all those skeletons and zombies in the haunted prison of course don't count. LOL.

More later...