Monday 23 December 2019

Piracy oneshot: wonky spy gas

A second group! I'm running a series of oneshots with my wife and her astronomy colleagues at the university. A bunch of them have never roleplayed before, so I can dust off my resolutions for how to introduce new people to the hobby

My plan is to first run a couple of oneshot adventures to showcase different aspects of play, rules systems and settings. There's a big group of potential players, so first I want them to get their bearings; then we can zoom in on a system and setting to dig our teeth into.

In this first oneshot the players join a pirate crew, get mutinied, navigate the Merabaha islands and a nearby office X-mas party, get pulled by conflicting secret missions and finally retake their ship. We didn't get to the dungeon at the end (a reskinned Hand of Dominion), but the trip was worthwile nonetheless. 

And all that thanks to wonky spy gas.


The New World is full of potential for those willing to risk life and limb; dangerous, sure, but here there is still freedom from the Old World powers and their grasping fleets. We find ourselves in the Merabaha islands, a vaguely Caribbean-esque archipelago in a sort-of 1600s time period: colonists, traders, pirates and just a whiff of the weird and strange.

The five player characters wake up out at sea with splitting headaches and a confused voice crying out for the captain. Said Jean-Marc Traneuille is slowly succombing to his wounds after being shot in the chest.

How did you get here? Flashback!

In the hurricane-struck settlement of Crimsontown, the Ranstead are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. The Valois captain Traneuille of La Belle Poule is holding court and hiring on crew in the Lusty Limpet tavern. The players make their way to the Limpet and into the back room. Here they introduce themselves to their captain and his mountain-of-muscle first mate, the quartermaster Silas Winch. Last one in is the artillerist Mark Brandzaam, who has spotted a bunch of customs men sneaking around the tavern and hurries in to sign his name to adventure on the high seas.


I'm using my Jar of Dirt ruleset and discovering that it still takes quite some time to build premade characters in it. Hence, I rolled up one character for each class and let the players choose. I also handed out personal secrets and missions to give the players some extra motivation. Sadly noone drew the "you're a vampire" background. Next time!

  • Fiorest Gump - Tarracon Sawbones: opium-addled ship doctor looking for money and drugs. Due to a typo on his character sheet, he is the confused owner of "wonky spygass". Waste not a good opportunity: we decide this is an experimental spyglass that uses a strange hallucinatory gas to increase range. Fiorest is secretly working for the Tarracon Inquisition and hunts for foul and unnatural things.
  • Nicholomir Candlano - Tarracon thief: a smooth operator and sneak thief who wants to get rich off the fabulous treasure that's being whispered about. Nicholomir is smuggling a jar of the dangerous and illegal Red Honey drug.
  • Claartje Gerritsen - Ranstead brawler: Claartje is here to break heads and hearts. She's muscle with a dangerous secret: nine months ago, she signed an old blacksmith's contract to get a knife that can cut through anything. (Sadly not explored in-game.) In return, she has to find 100 idiots to sign over their soul to the blacksmith for a year, or she'll have to serve for eternity.
  • Mark Brandzaam - Ranstead artillerist: an ex-miner looking for MOAR CANNONS. Has a huge arquebus and packs of gunpowder to play with. Mark is secretly working to get back into the Ranstead's good graces and wants valuable information on piracy in the region.
  • Fakse Zandbergen - head of the Wexlish/Ranstead Crew: Fakse is a gambling addict (and secretly a spy for the Ranstead) who leads an oafish group of 12 Ranstead religious separatists. This mass of buffoons acts as one regular character, sharing hit points, inventory etc.


As the quartermaster sets out ship rules to the new crew, captain Traneuille confides in his new ship's doctor Fiorest Gump: "it's not just gold we're going for, doctor - there's far more interesting finds in these waters! See this map? It belonged to the great pirate Jonas Booth. They say he owned a devil's toy, the Casket of Ys - with that casket, he was everywhere and nowhere at once. And I know where to find his stash."

The map indeed shows a small island off the main Merabaha islands and a riddle besides it. The captain even proudly presents Jonas Booth's own pet monkey as a sign of good fortune. The little flea bag screeches, too late, as a small serving boy snatches Traneuille's map and makes a run for it. At the same time, constables and customs men with muskets kick in the door!

Shenanigans ensue as the characters try to escape. Nicholomir escapes via the roofs, others play drunkard or claim to be the bouncer who's taking a pirate to jail. Half of The Crew get taken to jail; the wonders of this class mean that the rest can just leave them behind and keep on adventuring. After running away from the Lusty Limpet, Fakse needs to feed his gambling addiction. He manages to scrounge some silver off a pair of cargo haulers by using his deck of marked cards.

The complete and true map of the pirate Jonas Booth - archipelago and settlements by Skerples, this layout and Booth's island (top right) by me 


Eventually everyone makes their way to La Belle Poule. Captain Traneuille and his gang turn out to be a wonderful distraction, chased as they are in the background through market squares, church processions and a pig sty; the merry band makes it to the docks, customs guards in hot pursuit.

While La Poule is already casting off, Fiorest and Nicholomir spot the map-stealing serving boy peering out of an alley and run over. Nicholomir almost manages to knock the kid out, and then it's just a snick of doctor Fiorest's trusty scalpel before the wadded-up map is theirs again. Claartje tosses a rope and hauls the pair aboard. The ship heads out to sea.

Quartermaster Silas Winch is first at the scene to chew them out for being late. His eyes bulge when Fiorest waves the map in his face - "results, dear man!" No-one notices that the quartermaster swaps one wadded up map for another, more basic one. The captain is unperturbed; he knows the riddle and location by heart.

The characters are told to go asleep and take the day shift. Hours later, they wake to gunpowder and swordplay: a mutiny! Silas has the true map of Jonas Booth and is taking control of La Belle Poule. Half the crew and officers are behind him. Captain Traneuille is shot in the chest, the player characters are thrown in a longboat with him and his sketchy monkey, and they watch helplessly as La Belle Poule sails away.

It's about this time that the first scientists from the physics x-mas party across the hall wander in; apparantly the x-mas tree in the astronomy wing is a site to behold and needs to be photographed. They seem surprised at finding a roleplaying game in progress at the coffee table. We smile, wave and roll more dice.


Now what? The captain is dying and there's no food aboard. While the group discusses if they should eat the monkey - or the captain - the group discovers a tattoo below the luxurious fur of the beast. Drugging it with Fiorist's etheric vapours, Nicholomir shaves the poor animal. He discovers a map to the unnamed isle of Jonas Booth, with four lines of verse that seem to spell out a way to find the captain's treasure:

Follow the maiden's turnings three
Where Matthew met a sudden drop
Follow the stream till swimmer's stop
Thrice hold your breath and come to me

New map in hand, Claartje manages to find a bottle of rum hidden in the longboat. This is promptly used to sedate the captain while Fiorest does his best to stabilize the man. A few days of haphazard navigating leads the crew to The Wrecks, a shantytown of stranded sailors who hide from law and taxes in the shadow of Shipkiller Rock.

Bargains are made for food and other supplies, and Claartje builds up capital by going toe to toe with the Wrecks' best in their makeshift fighting ring. She wins enough favor and silver to resupply the group's longboat, buy a war canoe and sign on some new crew.

Literally sign, that is, as she whips out a little booklet and has each new crewmember sign their name under a contract to The Old Blacksmith. Five more souls for hell! The rest of the players seem quite perturbed at this little cult being formed under their noses.

Nicholomir, after some dealmaking with shady characters, turns up with a big wheel of cheese and concentrated rat poison.

It's at this point that Fiorist's player starts to gun for the Nicholomir; trying to poison the cheese or steal it. I could've nixed that - seems to be an out-of-game thing between the two that's being brought into the game - but the pair seem ok with it and it's not really disruptive. I'll regret that later on.


There's a brief debate about where to go next. Retake La Belle Poule, ignore those bastards and win Jonas Booth's treasure, or set out into the unknown? An old sailor tells Mark and Nicholomir of a place where you can get a proper boat. Siren's Point, he sketches in the sand, is just a day's sailing away. The name is foreboding, and the offer is politely declined.

It's time to end those bastard mutineers.

On the way to Booth's island is the Wretched Reef - La Belle Poule would have had to go around it, but the players' smaller longboat might just slip across. And it does, although the group sails into a dreadful storm that sets the crews on edge and makes morale plummet.

Two more days of sailing, and there's landsign: clouds and birds on the horizon, then a dark strip of island and the profile of a familiar ship. Planning time, while Mark starts making makeshift bomme's to throw.

Doctor Fiorist whips out his wonky spy gas and, drug vapours leaking in his face, makes out an undercrewed La Belle Poule. The rowing boat is headed to the island, and the ship is ripe for the picking. Making sure to stay out of the arc of it's prow cannon, our pirates slip close, ...

(We interrupt the game for a minute to chat with a not-too-sober physicist from across the hall, who explains that there's beer left and would we like to come over? Tempting, but the dice beckon. We game on.)

..., and then make a mad dash to get in boarding range of La Belle Poule before they're spotted. Wondrous stealth checks by the players and lousy spot checks by the lookout combine with a disastrous sailing check by Fakse's crew. It seems that "more sail" is a maneuvre his crew knows by heart, while "brake, brake, for gods' sake we'll smash right into it" was only in the advanced class.

We slip into bullet time as the longboat smashes into the side of La Belle Poule at break-neck speed. Fiorist, Fakse and Claartje all manage to jump for a rope; Mark takes a bit more time to clamber up, and Nicholomir discus-throws his wheel of cheese into one of the enemy pirates.

A big fight flares up on deck! There's gunplay, furious stabbing, rope-swinging and vein-cutting (that sawbones class is a killer) before most of the mutineers lie on the ground.


Only the guy in the crow's nest is left. As he takes pot shots at the group below, Fiorist lays into Nicholomir with his scalpel. We ask why, and get a spiel about the secret mission I gave (inquisitor) - now, Nicholomir definitely has shady things going on, but he's not demon spawn. It turns out to be a rivalry over a game of chess finding its way into the game - almost all players are new to roleplaying, so they don't automatically . Both Nicholomir and Fiorist kick the bucket.

I could've paused the game here - and should have, in hindsight - but it's getting late and a full run of the island would easily take another hour, so I let the fight play out, then wrap up the game.

There's winding paths on the island, riddles to be solved and even a little dungeon to explore. At the end of it all is the secret treasure of Captain Jonas Booth. A casket of ivory and ebony, just big enough to fit a man inside. Crawl in, and your shadow duplicate steps out for a couple of hours. You can ride them from inside the casket, or make a deal and both go on your way. A wondrous treasure for the right buyer - or the group themselves.

Update: Because we didn't explore Booth's tomb, we didn't get to the part where the players have to crack a safe to get to the treasure. The prize would've been Booth's casket, but also one free reroll in the next game for everyone who managed to make it to the end.

Safe by Ugears


A nice evening's worth of play with lots of piratical tropes; players had fun, I had fun, and I got to field test my Jar of Dirt system (needs work ;). I'm still happy with my idea to introduce the players via a flashback, then work back to the 'present' of the opening scen. Good way to set the mood, although I could've kept this tighter - it spiralled into over an hour of finding tavern, spotting guards, introductions, theft and escape and finding map and casting off and mutiny.

My three resolutions for the next game:

  1. spend less time on character introduction;
  2. perhaps don't give out secret missions that can derail play, or prove hard to impossible to achieve;
  3. most importantly: explain at the start of play that I won't allow out-of-character beef at the table. What happened wasn't vicious or agressive, but it did come out of nowhere and dragged out scenes so that we couldn't make it to the "planned" end of the adventure in one go.

Friday 20 December 2019

Belswick 11: and then there were none

Last time in Belswick, the group dug into an underground complex to save their buddy Mike from demonic possession. This session, they discover there's worlds of weirdness down below.

Excerpt from the travel logbook of the Nobledwarf Shams Metalgrog

Rumours of impending surface war slither down the tunnels. This threatens our trade routes and so finding a safe new route is the most honourable task bestowed upon me. We set out with nine in our party and the first leg of the journey was without incident.

The difficulty started when we reached some badly built corridors, no real craftdwarfship went into it and that showed. The first two dwarfs were lost to the collapse of such a wretched passage. We will have to pay the families of LiliHammer and DaisyStomper. Their loss is mourned.

The further east we went the greater our loss. Axl Ferrose and Kevin were pulled into the heights by sticky threads, and LotusKnocker and CactusSipper disappeared into the dark after a loud growling suddenly was heard close by.

Also lost to us was Dan Delying, sage and holder of the list of goods and requirements. His disappearing while away for a pee break was awkward. The smell in the area he disappeared from was slightly mouldy and I am sure the little mushrooms that were growing in the corners were not there before. Now only I and my retainer Nicolas are left to carry on.

Mummy can we go to the library

The uncertainty about the lives of our party eats at me, but we have to finish our task. Hopefully along the way we will be able to strike beneficial agreements to reach our goal and get our compatriots back. We have moved slightly quicker these last hours, but we have finally a need to rest a bit. We reach a room that looked like it was once a library. It will suit our purpose.

The library looks extensive. It appears made for giants, or parts of it do. Perhaps magic caused part of the site to grow, or shrink. There are bustes of some famous sage and murals of how this wise one tracked and trapped a priest who stole the secrets of heaven (good, the texts indicate) and went mad with the power (useful, but best kept until a time of the snakefolk's choosing. Hency, many experiments to bind and capture this Umtak Ktharl.) Mummies of ancient snakefolk are busying themselves with the restoration of books. They leave us alone as long as we are quiet.

Quick sketch of the area by Franky the dungeon bug / dungeon merchant.

We meet one called Anthony - greenish eyes, claw-like nails, grayed skin, smells like dead meat, is looking for his buddies. He eyes us in the light of our candle. A fragile compact, that could be broken by the least of incidents. His gaze is feral and hungry. I do not trust him. Before we can put this delicate balance to the test, Nicholas hears the sound of voices on the other side of a gigantic door. Anthony flees down natural tunnels through a crack in the walls. I do not believe I have seen the last of him.

Shams is a new character played by my wife; she's meeting up with the rest of the group who are trying to find their runaway druid buddy Mike. Said druid has been temporarily taken over by the devil Buddy after making a deal to return the party back to life. Buddy has let slip that he's on earth to "deal with a priest."

This underground site of the Du'van snakefolk is based on Dyson's Frog Reliquary map. I've increased the scale so that every map square is 100x100 feet, and added colour to show factions' span of control. Underground dungeon time is strange, my players have discovered. Here time flows faster than above, and space has increased. Time for a new ecosystem to pop up: sentient fungi, enormous spiders and giant lizards now fight the undead in the side areas for living space. These side spaces are quite dangerous and heavy in loot, but the party seems to be uninterested so far.

The enemy of my enemies

The party that crawls under the giant door are the first people here that don’t immediately want to kill me and mine. They are also looking for a member of their party, a weird and evil rat type creature. The group consists of:
  • A Priest of the Authority - a hint of unctious cleric and a voice that seems trained to project like a bard. He does not heal and does not inspire.
  • A tall shark man - smells like he might cause trouble, though not clear for whom. He keeps griping about his time running out, wanting an amulet off the priest and needing to return underwater to complete his transformation.
  • An elf - what more needs to be said.
(Absent due to flu: Guy the wizard, Mike&Sydney the druid&sorceror. Mike/Sydney's player will skype in later in the evening to join part of the spider combat - having a player join via cybertube is a first for us!)

Information in the library

The giant map on the library wall shows clearly that this abomination of a structure is somehow connected to the ancient dwarf tunnels that criss-cross the Snake Mountains. The collapsed tunnels we encountered were clearly were this obscenity of a complex had encroached upon the great dwarven roads. I blame myself for not seeing this sooner. 

Stylized Du'van map of what seems to be the Belswick area. It shows mountains and bodies of water, as well as the resting places of six great leaders of the snake people. (XIXIMANTER is from Tomb of the Serpent Kings; CYRIS MAXIMUS, from Death Frost Doom; Umtak Ktharl, from a short Johannes Cabal story. The rest are my own wriggly little brain childer.)

We join forces to find those we have lost. Delving in to the fungal growth we find "heyheyhey it's your boy Franky!" an enormous cockroach (I will not judge upon his form) with all the information and all the greatest deals. Have engaged him in friendly trade. If any trade route is to run through here he will come in very handy.

Communication with this creature was interesting and disconcerting, as it appears to happen telepathically through the spores I have inhaled from a small mushroom in his pouch. Long term effect will have to be assessed.

Frankieboy has agreed to take us to the nearest dwarf that is still alive through the safest route. This was only partially correct. Our party ran into a floating tentacled fungal sac. It was slain by the shark man, but not before I was struck by its tentacles. Verily these caves contain things I was not prepared for. Luckily my traveling armor proved up to the task. For a next venture I might need to bring the full set. Our roach friend reappeared after the battle was done and continued guiding us to the throne room of the Shroomian Queendom.

Fun guys

(To paint a picture: a large chamber with mood lighting fungal growths, all kinds of mushroom people scattered throughout the area. A lot of spores in the air and the denizens seem to be tripping balls. On a large and slightly squelchy throne the queen is seated. She speaks in the voice of a true Californian valley girl. The DM had so much fun faking that vocal fry and wants nothing more than to leave this NPC behind. We chat her up for the better part of fifteen minutes before we leave.)

Ordinarily I do an NPC's first few lines 'in character', then drop to my normal voice. We've been watching a lot of Critical Role, so I thought it could be worth the effort to stay in-character for some NPCs. Frankie was easy to run, Her Shroominess decidedly less so. You try to do a disinterested valley girl with thick vocal fry in Dutch.)


Her Mouldiness was mostly interested in keeping the mellow going. Anyone that was found to be, as she said, harshing the buzz was declared fungi (or persona) no grata. At this moment I was incredibly appreciative for those dreary formal lessons in etiquette. It allowed me to immediately grasp the important things that drive this strange society. Drug use is not something we embrace in the halls, but this community seems to depend on it.

We encounter here two of my party I had thought lost - and have decided to write off again. LiliHammer and DaisyStomper shamble towards us, fungal growths streaming from their mouth, nose and ears. They fell and were, like, made use of, as the shroomians explain in their woozy mind speach.

My sage was seated near the queen, and considering his harshing influence the queen was more than happy to give him back to us. No trade with this Fungination will be forthcoming, they appear to not want for anything. Not sure if this will change in the future. However I have negotiated the beginnings of an understanding and safe passage will be granted us, which includes one of the queen’s citizens as our guide. This large Shroomian will bring us to the ‘creepies’ above that we have promised to take care of in our agreement with the queen. I have hope that two of my compatriots will be found here.

Party in the web

The spider lair comes into view with the familiar detritus of webs and remains. A few cocoons are visible on the ground, I pray to find two dwarves alive in there. Right before we enter the lair my new friends are joined by one of their party. Sydney - a dragonborn who is not all flash, but he is better off keeping it in his robes.

The battle was long and harsh, but the spiders were scattered and defeated. Dan proved his sageness by throwing firebolts. The shark man’s rage burns and makes for good spider barbecue. The cleric shows great proficiency in scaring spiders and I have seen him split a ghostly spider from its soul, killing it effectively.

The highlight of this battle was performed by Sydney, as he struck killing blow to the spider queen in the form of a heart-shaped orb. He appears to want to woo me. His priorities will need to be righted soon. In a strange turn of magic events, which I do not claim to comprehend at all, the dragon-born, transformed temporarily into a potted plant. He was tended to by members of his party (though the cleric does not attempt to heal him, this is strange), and my immediate goal was to get to the big cocoons scattered around the area and find my brothers. Axl Ferrose was in the first of the cocoons, he was understandably angry. I’m sad to say that Kevin did not make it, I found his lifeless body in one of the other cocoons. We will need to compensate his family for this loss.

Our end of the bargain upheld, we returned to the Shroomian queen. She was less than pleased to once again have our harsh personages in her space, but was happy to be rid of the spiders for now. Our Shroomian guide is ordered to the swamp to relax - apparently his proximity to our harshness has rubbed off on it. And he is to take us with him. The swamp supposedly has two more of my brothers, and is closer to the Great Prison that seems to have been the destination of the druid Mike.

I do not know what the next days will bring, but I have hopes that with my new friends I can get through them. I still have hopes of finding a safe trade route, though there are a significant number of unpredictable parties in these tunnels. 


  • sturdy grey woolen cloak with flame sigils in golden thread, resist fire: 700gp
  • silver cup 60gp
  • pouch of ancient coins 80gp
  • key stones with snakes on them (hexagon with elven number 8, triangle with elven number 7. Tilbord the priest and Lomin the Elf seem perturbed - didn't the snakefolk predate the Elves?)

It bears repeating: all the stuff found in this dungeon is the rightful property of the lord on whose land the group is trespassing. Which means that barring smooth talking or stealthy passage, they won't get to keep any of this without trouble of some kind. Taxes, weregild, a declaration of poaching - it's all in the cards.

If the band ever makes it to the surface again, that is. I feel the Veins opening up beneath this dungeon complex.

Monday 16 December 2019

Ship combat cheat sheet

It's been very quiet here, because my IRL gaming has perked up significantly with a second group. I blame Critical Role - one of my players got my wife hooked on them and now she's wrangled a bunch of colleagues into trying out some oneshots.

Right now I'm prepping a pirate adventure for Thursday evening, and found myself in need of a ship combat cheat sheet. Ruleset is my own Jar of Dirt, pirated from Skerples' original. Print out these sheets on A4 (ship) and A3 (manoeuvres) and have at it!