Fearful Symmetries: The Shadow of War

Last night was the latest Fearful Symmetries session. To prepare for it, I had asked last session for the players to send me some idea of what they wanted their characters to do in Prague. I got a nice, high-level list of goals that I intended to use to plan the next scenario.

Unfortunately, as I worked on the scenario, I found that I was having to make more assumptions about what the characters were doing and would do than I was comfortable with. The goals I had, while useful for planning the larger story arcs of the campaign, weren’t as useful for putting together an individual scenario – at least, not this early in the campaign, when I haven’t really got a firm grip on what the characters are like, yet, and therefor can’t properly judge or predict their actions and attitudes. I need to be more familiar with them before I can do that, and that will only come as we play.

So, I sent out another e-mail message, asking for a list of two or three specific things they would like their characters to do over the next couple of weeks. They (almost immediately) sent back a nice list of specific things they wanted to do. And at this point, I want to mention that neither of them had any trouble coming up with stuff for their characters to do that was important to them; part of this is that I’ve got creative players that really get into their characters, but another big part of this is the collaborative city creation process. There are built-in hooks, threats, and storylines that both the players and characters are interested in and have some connection to. I know, I’ve said it before, but I’m surprised and pleased anew each time a situation comes up where the groundwork we laid during city and character creation comes back to make play that much better.

Anyway.

With their lists in hand, I looked things over, picked a few of the things that seemed most likely to come up during play, and started fleshing them out. I followed the advice in Your Story to do this – well, sort of, anyway. I looked at the items that I had picked off their lists one by one, and looked at the master Aspect list I had put together for the game, pulling out and listing the character and setting Aspects that tied most directly into the chosen situations, and making connections between them. I even found a cool little app for my new iPad called Idea Sketch that let me sketch out the scenario ideas in flowchart form, the way I prefer when planning scenarios.

With three or four scenario ideas fleshed out, and enough material to improvise if the players decided to go with one of the items on their lists that I hadn’t fleshed out, I felt comfortable letting the players set their direction and choose their goals in a very sandbox style. I just made sure I had a few stock antagonists statted up in addition to the stats for the fleshed-out scenarios.

When we got together to play, I spent a little time tidying up loose ends from the previous session, which also served as providing a recap for the players, and then asked them what they wanted to do. After a few little pieces of business they wanted to take care of, they decided to head out to visit Marta, the maid who had virtually raised Izabela after the death of her mother. They had found out, back in the very first session, that Marta had got too old to work, and gone off to a nearby village to live with her son.

So, we’re talking June, 1620, near Prague. The city is under constant threat, the lands around it are being picked clean by the Bohemian foragers trying to supply the army, as well as skirmishers and saboteurs from the Catholic forces, and bandits preying on everyone. One of the threats we came up with for the setting is that bands of near-feral shapeshifters, ghouls, and other monsters are using the cover of the war to rampage through the countryside, letting the various human armies take the blame for the atrocities they’re committing. But I didn’t want to bring them into it, just yet – I wanted at least one session where the horrors had a completely human source.

After some discussion about hiring horses, and the expense, the characters decided to use magical mounts: Emric has a Spirit of War trapped in a ring that takes horse form, and Izabela used her ectomancy to conjure a horse from ectoplasm. Izabela then used the money she would have spent on hiring a horse on putting together a care package for Marta. Then, at dawn, they set out down the road to visit the old woman.

I had told them that Marta lived about thirty miles from Prague – a long day’s ride – past another village on the same road. As they rode out, I described the lands around them, and how there were fewer people than there should be in the fields, and how they started giving way to abandoned farms and fallow fields, and things like that. Then I threw in a little encounter with Captain Amiel, the swiss mercenary they had met previously, and his company of men.

The Captain was once again polite and friendly, and strongly urged them to return to the city, saying that there were bandits and skirmishers out in the lands around Prague, and that the roads weren’t safe, as he and his men were confined in their patrol to no more than five miles from the city walls. When it became obvious that Izabela and Emric would not be persuaded from their journey, he wished them luck, and let them pass on their way. Emric promised to visit the Captain at the Gored Ox to buy him a drink when he returned.

As the characters continued on their way, the abandoned farms changed to burned-out farms, and the fallow fields turned to scorched earth. I mentioned a cloud of circling crows in the distance as a piece of colour, but the characters decided to go investigate it. I had originally planned to have them beset by bandits on the road, woefully outnumbered, so that they had to flee, and I’d get a neat chase scene, so I thought I’d give them a glimpse of what the bandits had done to a nearby farm to prove they meant business.

They found the farm with the main buildings burnt and the animals slaughtered in the yard. The fact that the animals were slain rather than taken led the characters to the conclusion that this was done by bandits rather than soldiers, which was the point I had wanted to make. They found the family dead inside the house, which had had the door nailed shut before the roof was fired, and one young boy who had fled the slaughter and hidden down the privy hole had passed out and drowned after being down there several hours.

Again, the point was to show the horrors of war, and to drive home the fact that these things were done by normal humans. I figured that, after seeing this, the bandits would be more frightening when encountered on the road.

But the characters were deeply offended by what had happened, and wanted to hunt down the bandits, which I hadn’t prepared for. Izabela used magic to speak with the ghosts of the family to find out what had happened, and found a piece of a horseshoe to use in a finding spell. Emric scouted around and found tracks, so between the two of them, they were able to follow the trail, first to an old campsite, and then to the farmstead where the bandits had set up housekeeping.

Now, in this system, a dozen armed men with armour riding at you across the field means that you’re in trouble, pretty much no matter how powerful you are. But preparation and surprise are amazing equalizers, so finding the bandits at their leisure, unmounted, and spread between the house and the barn, and having the time to veil themselves, meant that what would have been an overwhelming force in an open battle became a much more manageable target.

They scouted the area under a veil, which Izabela is getting quite good at casting, figuring out where everyone was, and taking out one of the sentries. Then, Emric used his pyromancy to cause the fire in the fireplace to flare up suddenly, giving them the opportunity to climb in through the window and be among the men in the house before anyone knew what was happening. The burst of fire, plus the burning grass outside the window from the fallout Emric took when he failed his control roll, kept people distracted long enough for them to kick in the bedroom door and find the bandit leader.

I was pleased that the players had read my post about combat in this system, and it showed in the fight that followed. They worked together, using their skills and the environment to put Aspects on the targets, setting them up for killing blows. Aside from being more mechanically successful, it also made the fight much more cinematic, with people throwing tankards around, tripping each other, getting pinned under the furniture, and swept up in whirlwinds. They kept the bandits from effectively ganging up on them, and took them on in small groups, which they could easily handle.

After they had killed the bandits, they realized they couldn’t make the next village before dark, so they cleaned out the barn, found a wagon, loaded it with the food, valuables, weapons, and armour the bandits had acquired, and settled in for the night. Izabela set a ward around the barn, and they spent a moderately restful night under cover.

Next morning, they made it to a village that had been fortified by sealing all the ways into town with barricades, and setting large carts in the roads to act as gates. The knight commanding the village refused to let them in when the characters wouldn’t answer his question about whether they were Catholic or Protestant, so the players went on their way to Marta’s village somewhat miffed.

Marta’s village had a better natural defensible position, being on the far side of a small river from the road, with a single bridge crossing just before the millpond. The constructed defenses were much fewer, consisting of a ring of stakes and a big wagon in the middle of the bridge. Izabela let the guards know she had come to see Marta and, once they had verified her identity, they were invited inside. Izabela had her nice little reunion with Marta, and she and Emric gave the food and weapons they had taken from the bandits to the village to help them defend themselves. The miller, who was the de-facto mayor of the village, called it a miracle, and opened a keg of ale to host an impromptu street party.

The characters decided to stay around for a day or so, helping the villagers improve their defenses, and get some idea of what was going on in the surrounding area. They heard more stories of looted and destroyed farms and, as they gained the villagers’ trust, these tales got more elaborate and grim, leading Izabela to conclude that werewolves or ghouls may be responsible for at least some of the attacks. When they asked directions to the nearest farm that had been so hit, the directions included reference to a standing stone at a forest crossroad, which caught Emric’s ear, as he has been wanting to scout the area for places of power that could be put to Prague’s defense.

They decided to head off to investigate both the standing stone and the farm, and that’s where we left it last night. I’ve got a few weeks to flesh out the next stage of the adventure, and I’m going to take advantage of it.

I’m still really enjoying running the system, and am constantly impressed with how easy it is to whip up stats for something on the fly. It gives me a great deal of freedom in setting up scenarios, and allows me to give a great deal of freedom to the characters in terms of setting their own agendas and choosing the direction of the campaign. It’s very gratifying.

That said, the complexities of the spellcasting system are still somewhat daunting in play. Handling spellcasting still takes more time than handling pretty much anything else. I think that spellcasting  is going to have to be the subject of my next post about the system. And it will probably take more than one post to cover.

But we’re having fun, and are all anxious for the next game.

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One Response to Fearful Symmetries: The Shadow of War

  1. Rel Fexive says:

    Sounds excellent!

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