My first playtest of the rules was lovely. We skipped a chapter or two, and didn't do the homecoming, but soon got into the rythym of the game. It was a heroic quest in a shadowed world, to overcome an evil queen.
Betsy - Tombo, apprentice grain miller with an acute sense of justice. Up for a challenge, prone to believing conspiracy theories.
Rob - Caw, eldest of five kids, father died when he was young. Puts it upon himself to be the ‘man’ of the family. Prone to brooding, thinks of Thrace as a kid sister. Heart as big as the salt sea.
Jen - Thrace, youngest daughter of the butcher. She is practical and gets stuff done. Worries that Caw takes too much on himself.
Kristi - Tansy (21), Mouthy, picks fights, gets angry quickly and forgives instantly. Afraid of fire for no reason. Has a beloved cat called Cat.
Heroic, Shadowed, Evil Queen, Sacrifice magic. The green-eyed Queen who rules the land with an iron fist always has a daughter who is her first born, and by tradition, upon attaining her majority, the firstborn goes to the sacred temple and after a secret ceremony comes out with green eyes, and her mother the old queen dies.
The party are all young adults in the village of Ellith Springs.
The wise and powerful sage who goes by many names lives in the village. We call him Guillym, but he is known as Mabon in the old kingdom and the resistance calls him Isan the Whisperer. He says that the time of prophecy is here, and although the storm clouds approach it is time for the rain to end.
Friends along the way
Tombo (♣️) remembers having a bit of a run-in with Guillym, who was challenging him about his conspiracy theories and told Tombo that it was time to get up, and get out, and come with him to bring the fresh spring water from their village, in accordance with the prophecy. Guillym also charged a number of other people to come on the quest with him to dethrone the queen. Tombo agreed to come along, as does Stannis the elderly smith and tinker, and the butcher who is the father of young Thrace.
Caw is prepared to go along as well, and took with him the treasure he unearthed while ploughing the day before - his plough had turned up a rusty iron box, and inside the box was the hilt of a sword with a barely visible blade - a fabled ghost sword. (♦️)
Thrace wasn’t going to go, but with shock and surprise her father died just before the group were due to set off in a horrible accident. She felt obligated to travel in his stead. (♠️)
"Oh, I had such a horrible experience at the first inn we stopped at" said Tansy (♠️). "There we were sitting there, when they brought in Bella, and she was dead. Bella with the beautiful hair, Bella with the attitude that she was better at everything, Bella who all the boys chased after. Bella who I hated. She was covered in blood and her arm was hanging down the side and everyone ignored it, it was just hanging there and she was dead and I still didn’t like her but it was just hanging down and it wasn’t right and nobody cared. They just ignored her. Apart from you, Tombo. You took a bit of her yellow ribbon and cleaned it and put it in my hair. I didn’t know why you did it then. Not yet."
A Fraught Vision: shortly after they had left the village we see a troop of the queens soldiers march into the village, despoiling the spring, burning down houses and killing any who opposed them.
Into the Wilderness
It wasn’t long before their travels led them into a terrible swamp. They picked up Tomas, the prince of refugees along the way, as Guillym vouched for him.
Tansy (♠️) remembered how wet and miserable the swamp was. How the mud clung to their feet and dragged them down with an awful sucking at a moments notice. As the mists drew in she was acutely aware of Stanna struggling along at the back under her pots and pans. She whispered to the others that they ought to send Stanna back, because she wasn’t going to survive the swamp let alone the rest of the journey. Tomas overheard this and had said that he would handle it - he went off into the mist with Stanna and after a while came back alone. Nobody asked what he had said (or done) although we did cast a few glances back and forth between us.
"But then there was the village", Tombo said (♠️) - "wrecked and ruined by the queens soldiers, and with a barrier of flame across it that would make it impossible to follow our path. Somehow Guillym wasn’t going to be stopped though. Although those flames were hotter than the smith’s forge he walked into them, held out his arms - and parted the flames! We could see he was in pain so we all scurried under his arms and across to the other side. But the sacrifice of doing that magic was too great for him - he collapsed and the fires roared back and he was gone."
"Hey," said Caw (♣️), "that was when JoJo the villager joined us. I felt we ought to welcome him into our family and help him run away from the mess that was behind him. What a big hearted fool I was, just to accept him without question. We couldn’t have known how things were going to turn out though, could we?"
"My blood was boiling," Thrace recalled (♦️), "and the other side of the village we saw some of the queen’s guards resting and laughing. Furious we grabbed up stones and charged, pelting them. At first they ran, not knowing how many of us there were - but as they got half-way across the rope bridge the turned and saw it was just us. They started back but just then Caw drew his ghost sword and sliced through the rope bridge stays, and they went crashing down into the ravine. We picked our way down there, and stripped them for weapons and armour. We wouldn’t face them with stones next time."
A Fraught Vision: We see the queen walking and talking to her late-teens daughter, telling her that it wasn’t right for her to try to avoid the ceremony, the queen found it personally hurtful. The princess was ushered into a council chamber, and as we enter we can see in the flickering light that each of the chairs has a seated noble. “You must be sure to bring your faithful noble friends up to speed with our little chat my dear” as the queen directs the princess to a throne - and as the camera turns we can see that every one of the princesses noble friends are seated round the table, and every one of them are dead. “We’ll just have to move up the programme” the queen purred.
Rumours had got to the fellowship that instead of a month to reach the palace, they now had less than a week. The only way to get there in time was to take a short-cut through the limestone caverns. Tomas decided to split up from them because the prince of refugees said that he had resistance fighters scattered through the caverns. He would gather them and meet at the other side.
"The dark was bad enough", Tombo recalled (♣️), "but do you remember the water? I said that my trews were getting wet and someone made a stupid joke about taking a wee earlier, but then our boots were getting wet too and we had to scramble up higher and higher in the caves as the water flooded in and around us. And yes, as I scrambled, I did have to drop our entire fresh water supply into the caverns below to be able to climb, but at least I didn’t drop the the mead, right?"
"Oh, don’t remind me about the water" Tansy sighed (♣️). "That was when I realised that I’d made a mistake back in the village and mixed up the skin with the special water from our beloved spring which was going to stop the queen with some ordinary water. I was half-afraid to let you know what had happened."
Thrace said (♣️) "I still remember the panic of the dark and the rising water and the knowledge that the queen's guards were still out there somewhere..."
"Ah, but then we were out", Caw said (♥️) "when we finally got to a spot we knew we were safe and could catch our breath, we built a fire to dry off our clothes and sat in a tight circle, sharing old songs, keeping close for warmth, and drinking the mead that Tombo had managed to hold on to."
Tombo placed his hand on Caw's shoulder. "That was my favourite moment of our adventure. It all seemed normal for a moment or two"
A Fraught Vision: We can see the palanquin bearing the princess to the temple for the ceremony, and as our view moves inside we see the princess not in her imagined splendour but bound in fine chains so she could not escape
The Final Battle
"Everything was a blur then," Thrace said - "Tomas and his refugees distracted the guards and we got round to the back of the temple. I remember that JoJo proved his value as he picked the lock and let us in the side door."
"Yes, but we were almost too late," Tombo said (♣️) "I jumped forward to set the princess free but suddenly the queens guards were all over me. Experienced thugs they beat me to the ground and kicked me and kicked me. I thought it was going to be the end of me."
"That’s when I reached for my sword, Caw remembers, and found it had gone (♣️) - JoJo had stolen it from me!"
"I ran up to the princess, in the confusion," said Thrace (♦️). "I told her we were here to help and I could see in her pitiful eyes that were turning bright green that there was only one kind of help I could give… I drew that sharp little knife that Caw had given me and she took it and drove it into her heart. My tears flowed freely, and as they splashed down on her upturned face I saw her eyes fade back to her natural brown as she died."
Caw said “That’s when I saw JoJo holding the ghost sword and screaming like it was burning him, but he wouldn’t let it go. I knocked him down and got on top of him and hit him again and again. I couldn’t stop myself, I don’t know why. Then I grabbed up the ghost sword and… I don’t want to remember anything about what happened next."
"I could tell you," Tombo said; "I think you saved my life."
"No," Caw demurred. "I never want to think of those lifeless bodies again."
"Well", said Tansy, "it seems that the magic of our home village sprang from our hearts and not from the ground after all. And it turns out that it wasn't the rain that was ending... but the reign!"
That’s where we drew the game to a close, we ran out of time for the Homecoming, and I was keen to get lots of advice written down to improve the game prior to the next playtest.
I really enjoyed seeing the quest unfold, especially as the players got into the rhythm of narrating the adventure that they had been on with interjections, foreshadowing and such.
Learning from this playtest
The main lessons that I took back to my rules thinking.
- The basic structure for deciding what the setting of the story would be was evocative and gave players lots of choices which they enjoyed.
- Providing more structure to help people set out their home base is important.
- Introducing a setup phase where locations, treasures, threats and supporting characters could be prepared in advance will put less pressure on the players to come up with something dramatic in the moment.