Fearful Symmetries: Kirchoff’s Fall

We picked up the Fearful Symmetries story this session with Emeric and Izabela interrogating the captive White Court vampire that Amadan had acquired for them. The prisoner knew that he’d been left to twist in the wind by Lukrezia Malvora and the rest of the family, and that his only hope of escaping with his life was to give his captors what they wanted. He bargained as well as he could, though his position was hardly one of strength, and secured the promise that, if the information he gave to Emeric and Izabela helped them catch up with Lukrezia, they would set him free, as long as he promised to leave the city and not come back.

He didn’t know where Lukrezia was, but he offered his best guesses, saying that the best bet was that she had gone to Mstetice, the little village where Marta ((Marta was the maid who had raised Izabela, and really the only member of her family in Prague that she cared about.)) lived.

Now, I had decided going in that, given the White Court predilection for complex plotting and working through intermediaries, that the end-game for the Malvora storyline was going to be all about hard choices and mitigating damage, rather than out-right success or failure. And to simulate that Lukrezia is more intelligent than I am, with a vast experience in messing with people, I cheated a little, planning-wise ((This is a basic technique that is advocated in Amber Diceless Roleplaying, to help you play the elder Amberites, who are smarter, sneakier, craftier, and better prepared than you will ever be. I call it cheating, because it’s a tactic designed to outflank the characters, no matter what they decide to do, removing their ability to cleverly counter or prevent the plot. As such, I use it very, very sparingly, because it’s not fair to rob the players of cool. I only really use it when I have a different sort of cool in mind for this particular game session. And I try not to be heavy-handed, even when I do use it.)). Basically, I worked out a few different plots that she could have in place, with the understanding that I would use whichever one seemed best when the characters caught up with things – and by best, I mean whichever one put the characters in the toughest position.

The basics of the thing were going to be the same: the White Court was going to do its level best to destroy Mstetice and everyone in it.

The simplest version of the plot was that the characters were going to be too late getting to Mstetice, and find that it had torn itself apart with rioting and murder. The players bypassed that by deciding to travel through the Mittelmarch ((Which is what the inhabitants of Bohemia in 1620 call the Nevernever.)) in order to get to Mstetice in an hour or so, rather than in two days.

It was a little sloppy of me, but I hadn’t actually thought of them doing that ((Yeah, in retrospect, it’s a pretty obvious tactic, but sometimes you just miss stuff.)). I asked the players to give me five minutes, and came up with a simple sketch chart for the trip through the Mittelmarch – just a few nodes with single-word descriptions like Fork, Valley, River, Ridge, and the like, with some connecting lines and decision points.

As I said, it only took about five minutes to rough it out, and then I asked the characters how they were doing things. They found a place in Prague with similar enough resonance to Mstetice ((In New Town, which is actually fairly peaceful and prosperous under the mayor’s leadership, despite the shadow of war cast over Prague. Quite similar to the feeling in Mstetice. Though Amadan warned them to avoid the New Town Square, with the haunted clock.)), and Izabela opened a way to the Mittelmarch.

I improvised the actual encounters along the trail to Mstetice, which wound up being an interesting challenge for me. See, I based things on ideas from myths, legends, and fairy tales, but I needed to avoid using the actual fey, because the borders of Faerie have been closed by the Queens. So, I put some strange things in, and figured I’d worry about what they meant if the characters actually investigated and paid attention. In keeping with the mythic theme, I decided they needed to pass through three challenges ((They actually faced four challenges, but didn’t pass through the ferryman challenge, so that doesn’t count.)) to reach their destination. The path they chose took them to:

  • A stone table heaped with dried fruit and clay bottles. They didn’t eat anything there, but instead left offerings of their own. I told them to put the Aspect Sacrificed at the Stone Table on their sheets ((This is an idea that I’m playing with, based on reading a bunch of other games, including Leverage, Apocalypse World, and similar things. I didn’t know what the Aspect meant, but I wanted to leave a hook for myself to use later, once I figured out what it meant.)).
  • An old ferryman who offered to take them across a river in return for their names. Emeric gave his name, but Izabela refused, and asked if she could give him something else. He asked for the secret that Odin had told her, and she refused that, as well, so they backtracked to a trail they had seen that led to a bridge over the entire canyon they were traveling in.
  • Spirits fighting a battle for possession of the bridge for their respective kings. The battle always ends with them all dead, then starts again if a living soul tries to cross the bridge, and the spirits try to persuade the newcomers to join their side and tip the balance. Emeric and Izabela tried reasoning with them, but had no luck ((They were very simple spirits.)), so Izabela used her magic to distract and confuse them while the pair escaped.
  • A giant shrike and another horrific monster ((That I made up on the spot as the big, honking THREAT after the shrike proved unequal to the task.)) that attacked while Izabela was trying to open a way back to Mstetice. Emeric took care of the shrike in very short order – one strike – and so I had a big, undefined monster start moving through the trees toward them. They managed to get through to the mortal world in time, and then Emeric held the beast off while Izabela sealed the rift.

They returned on the hill overlooking the village, and saw a large military force camped a few miles beyond it. Fearing the worst, they rode down to the bridge, and spoke with the folk there, to find that it was a Catholic force, and that the town had agreed to surrender at dawn. Izabela and Emeric agreed that was probably the best course, and took some time to cast a locating spell to try and find Lukrezia again. The spell pointed them to the Erlking’s Throne, so they set out.

At the menhir, they had a moderately unsatisfying meeting with Lukrezia, where she promised to leave Prague, to harm none on her way back to Italy, and to never return. Izabela and Emeric then promised not to pursue her ((Emeric threw in a promise of vengeance if she broke her vow, free of charge. He’s generous that way.)). The power of the place was such that the oaths were bound very tightly around everyone involved.

And that’s when Lukrezia told them that Kirchoff had left her service when he was told that they were leaving Prague, preferring to stay and exact his own vengeance on Izabela for the loss of his arm. He was back in Mstetice.

By the time they got back to town, things had gone to hell. In an incident inspired in my mind by the Boston Massacre, the fear in the villagers and the soldiers had spilled over into violence, two dozen soldiers were dead, and the rest were slaughtering the villagers and razing the village.

We ran into some difficulty at that point, because I hadn’t described the scene clearly enough, and we had to go back and change some things as the characters tried to do things that they though should be possible, but that I thought were suicidal. It was frustrating for both sides, because they couldn’t tell what their options were and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see the available options ((Miscommunication is the underlying problem of most difficulties I’ve ever encountered in gaming. After all, rpgs are entirely exercises in structured communication.)). We solved part of the problem with a quick sketch map, showing why charging the bridge was a bad idea, but that there were other avenues of approach.

They got inside the village, and found the captain of the occupying force unwilling to listen to these two civilians who’d shown up out of nowhere after the villagers had – so he thought – engineered a trap for his men ((Weird, huh? There’s no trust anymore.)). Things escalated, and again got a little frustrating, and again it was my fault.

See, Izabela and Emeric are very powerful. But an army unit of three- to four-hundred men was too much for even them. The only question was how many the pair would take with them. I kept trying to impress this on them, to show them that, even though they were tough and powerful, fighting the whole army here was suicide. And Clint finally said, “So, what, we’re just supposed to run away and let the rest of the village get slaughtered?”

Wow. Of course not. No, these are heroes. Heroes with a personal stake here. I stood there with my mouth open for a second, then handed them each a couple of Fate Points, and said, “No. You’re right. Sorry. But fighting the entire army is suicide. What are you going to do?” And then I stopped trying to tell them how they were going to fail, and helped them find a way to succeed ((This is, I think, a very important lesson that I learned. If you want to run a heroic game, never penalize the characters for being heroic. Instead, look for ways to reward it.)).

Kirchoff was, of course, hiding in the church steeple, and with a couple of muskets and a few grenadoes. They ran him down and killed him, cleansed the captain and the inquisitors of his influence, and negotiated a withdrawal from Mstetice for the Catholic forces ((I decided that, this early in the Thirty Years War, this kind of atrocity hadn’t become commonplace yet, and the captain was wracked with guilt for what he had allowed to happen. It both allowed me to get the army out of there and showed that there were reasonable, honourable men on both sides of the war.)).

The heroes had saved about half the population of Mstetice, including Marta and her family, but the miller who was the de-facto mayor was dead, and so were a lot of other people. Very much a mixed victory for the pair. Still, it wrapped up the White Court storyline ((For now, at least.)), and took Kirchoff out of the picture, so I figured it was worth a Major Milestone.

Now I’m interested in what they plan to do next.

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