Monday, July 10, 2017

New Dawn Session 22: July is not a Quiet Month

Precis: The PCs plan to spend July retraining their army, but the Orcs have other plans.

The 22nd session of my GURPS Fantasy Mass Combat game New Dawn was all about the difference between the plans you make and the events that occur. The PCs had decided to have a relatively quiet July, during which their troops could retrain and their army could expand. Sure, they intended to knock off a few Orc regiments in a neighboring countries, but their big focus was going to be retraining. Unfortunately, the orcs in a different set of neighboring countries had different plans, and the PCs were forced to respond to potential and actual orc incursions.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy but is branching out into military raids as the PCs become Mass Combat units in their own right.

The PCs involved in the army were:

The Direct Action consisted of:

+Kevin Smyth's Aisling Mhic Muiris - a Fae conwoman or possible ambassador - had a brief sequence.

All Over the Map

At the end of June and the last session, the direct action team had used their flying boat to zip around the country, annihilating orc garrison companies in their fortresses and creating a local power vacuum. Some orcs in the neighboring country of Zerniless responded by advancing into Hanist and reconquering the fortress of Lubasser. Fleeing peasants arrived at the Liberation controlled fortress of Frederikvud on the 28th and a courier got the word to the PCs on the 30th. On July 1st, the tired and battered direct action team immediately flew to Frederickvud to reinforce the garrison there, and a contingent of light infantry and artillery that had just finished training moved out of the capitol to provide additional firepower. The Pegasii cavalry also moved out of Trahaern's army to provide aerial scouting. 

Liberation armies in dark blue. Liberation air forces in
light blue. Liberation reinforcements in pastel blue.
Orc forces in red. Orc reinforcements in orange.
Nominally allied orc forces are green.

Meanwhile, on the northwest border with Menkgu and Venrike, Trahaern's army was facing off against half a regiment of orcs. Trahaern's old army could have smashed such a force without worry, but most of the field force had returned their depots for retraining and no one was sure how well the reduced force would do.

In the south, Aisling was overseeing the retraining and re-equipping of a large group of surrendered orcs. She was also suffering from the effects of the new variable mana system I had just introduced: mana levels were now changing randomly on a weekly basis across the continent, and local levels of high mana made Fae like Aisling suffer from Euphoria. At any rate, the leader of the orc forces, Colonel Rigar Gloomfang, approached her and pointed out that two of the garrisons that had been destroyed in the previous week were companies from his regiment, as were the last two orc garrisons in Hanist, and it would make more sense for him to order them to join the orc army than have them destroyed. Although this would add a significant number of dubiously loyal orcs to a force that was already dubiously loyal and more powerful than the local militia, Aisling agreed and couriers were sent out to recruit the orcs.

A Contemplative Interlude

In the northeast, the PCs waited at Frederikvud. A pair of soldiers approached Nayla, and basically asked if the rumors that she was a demi-god were true, and if so, how did that happen and most importantly, how could the soldiers become demi-gods too? Nayla mostly demurred to answering the questions, because she didn't know the answers anyway, but the rest of the PCs weighed in with their opinions. At some point, the topic branched to magic items, with the various PCs offering a bunch of confusing and mostly wrong answers as to why they were getting magic items. It was a good little role-playing scene that exposed a bunch of the PCs' various personality quirks.

The Lubasser Front

On the 2nd, an orc company with a preponderance of cavalry - including centaurs! - marched south at a leisurely pace, and eventually assaulted Frederikvud after dark on the 3rd. By that point, the PCs had nearly seven companies in place, commanded by Sven. The orc commander was quite skilled and had a bonus for fighting at night, but he was also heavily overnumbered and lacked air support. He took massive casualties in the first round of combat and retreated in the second round, but even so, only 10% of his force survived.

The PCs managed to capture a centaur sergeant and interrogate him, but he was less than helpful. The centaurs were vicious and cruel; they enjoyed hunting minotaurs and lizardmen and didn't want to be part of a future when they wouldn't be allowed to do that. Nesta eventually killed him out of annoyance but it did mean the PCs were going to have a problem with centaur prisoners in the future.

Sven was immediately going to follow up, but I pointed out it was close to 2 am and most of his troops had just spent four days on the road. They were willing to pursue the enemy, but they wanted to wait until morning. Sven relented and marched out the next morning, arriving at Lubasser in mid-afternoon on the 5th. The orcs had reinforced the Lubasser garrison with a second company. This one also had a very non-standard formation, with almost no cavalry but flying demonic imp scouts and a batch of kobold miners. Still, the garrison was outnumbered 3:1 and didn't have the advantage of darkness; Sven quickly breached the walls and conquered the place. A number of centaurs were captured, and there was a discussion about the difficulty of keeping superhumanly strong, smart, man-horse hybrids prisoner with the resources that the Liberation had available.

The Menkgu Front

On the other side of the PC's territory, Trahaern was facing several companies of orcs. He decided to hold up and wait for more reinforcements. The orcs attempted a reconnaissance in force, but since Greex had a magic map that showed all enemy troop movements, Trahaern and Greex had plenty of time to prepare for the orcs' arrival. They ambushed the orcs outside of the Liberation controlled fortress of Gicunoocoo and sent them reeling. Less than 100 of the orcs survived to retreat to their fortress of Catonodo, and Trahaern followed up and overran the castle on July 5th.

On Trahaern's left flank, another regiment of orcs was beginning to assemble. Fortunately, he would have a few days to prepare, and more allied reinforcements were coming.

We had covered a lot at this point, so I ended the game here.

Review of Play

This was a pleasantly simple session to plan for: I simply figured out what the orcs would do with their available information and had them do that, while the PCs made their own plans. Gameplay resulted from the clash of plans. It might not have been as tactically fraught as dealing with huge orc armies during the liberation of Hanist in June, but it was amusing and a bit of a breather.

Map with weather and mana level icons.
I did introduce two new subsystems in this session: changing mana levels and explicitly changing weather. Both worked out pretty well. Mana levels require that I roll on some tables every week or so of game time, which isn't too much of a hassle. Weather required a daily roll on a table and some tedious update work so that there were icons for the PCs to see, but I wrote a macro after the game to automate all that.

The role-playing scene with Nayla and the question of demi-godhood had been something I wanted to do for a while, but it kept getting put off in favor of other things. It had a little less impact than I would have liked, but it was still a good little scene.

What Next?

Next week, Aisling will deal with the consequences of inviting 700 orcs of dubious loyalty into her castle. We'll also introduce Ben's and Chris' second PCs, who are currently another nymph and an ogre priest, respectively. It should be interesting.

I have an idea for a micro-dungeon in Venrike that will take up a session or two and may result in the deaths of a few PCs. We'll see. That's in the future, though.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

New Dawn Session 21: The Grimstut Case

Precis: The PCs investigate the death of an ally.

The 21st session of my GURPS Fantasy Mass Combat game New Dawn mostly focused on a murder investigation. The orcs had counterattack and retaken the liberated city of Grimstut, and Diane Behm, the rebel Countess of Grimstut, had been caught in the city and forced to hide for several days. She was discovered by collaborators, betrayed to the orcs, and executetd. The PCs decided to find the collaborators and punish them.

This plotline arose from a throw away little bit of fluff that I added to the game to help remind the PCs that the orcs are jerks. I asked if anyone was interested in investigating it, and everyone was, so I decided to make an adventure out of it.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy but is branching out into military raids as the PCs become Mass Combat units in their own right.

Raven dropped out the game suddenly, so Ben got promoted to player and took over Zarathras.

The PCs involved in the investigation were:
Attivi, Trahaern, and Greex continued on to command the war effort in the northwest.

The Direct Action team of Ariana, Sven, and Zarathras were joined by
They spent the last bit of the session beating up orcs.

Writing a Murder Mystery

I have a copy of GURPS Mysteries, so I read through it for advice. The most useful bit was to make sure that the PCs always had an obvious clue to follow and to not include too many red herrings. I wrote up some notes for the mystery, which I can summarize here:
  1. Diane Behm had been found by accident when Lium, a collaborator, recognized her daughter Yulia as Yulia left a safehouse.
  2. Yulia had an inkling that she had been spotted by one of four people: Lium, a man in a distinctive hat; Renee, a blonde in a red dress; Ulvik, a known collaborator with an orc symbol on his cloak brooch; and Rath, a lamed kobold. That gave the PCs five obvious suspects to find and interrogate (it would be easy to clear Yulia, as Diane's assistant and other child would vouch that she loved her mother too much to betray her).
  3. The PCs would use their skills and the aid of their troops to find the other four suspects and interrogate them. Ulvik would claim to be a secret ally of Diane who had put a water canteen at the safehouse exit, a fact that could be verified by talking to Yulia or Diane's assistant. Rath would have left town and not to know anything about Yulia. Renee and Lium would lie with stories that contradicted Ulvik's; assuming that the PCs believed Ulvik, they would know that Renee and Lium were lying.
  4. I would also introduce Karl Luffare as a crime boss who was at the scene during the orc raid on the safehouse. Karl would be hard to find. He'd been the one who Lium told and who in turn told the orcs, and when the PCs started investigating, Karl would kidnap Diane Behm's grandchildren and hold them hostage.
  5. The investigation would end with the PCs confronting Luffare.
When I wrote it, it looked reasonably solid, though the bridge from finding out that Luffare was the villain to finding out that he had taken the children hostage was a little weak. As usual, things didn't work out exactly as I'd planned.

I knew that while this looked like a fairly straightforward plot to me, it had a bunch of moving parts and new characters in it. I created a map in MapTools that had tokens and descriptions for all the NPCs and hid most of them. That way, I could reveal them as the PCs found out about them, and hopefully having the tokens as a reference would mostly keep the PCs from getting too confused.

NPC reference image, showing all the NPCs encountered in the investigation

Fixating on the Villain Too Early

The opening sequence of the mystery went well: I introduced Yulia and Diane's assistant Brianna and established that Yulia was an entitled brat who blamed Trahaern for her mother's death, while Brianna was mildly helpful. Uhuk immediately put Yulia on the potential suspect list, and everyone else agreed to investigate the other potential subjects. But first, they wanted to do some hands-on investigating of their own.

They scoured the neighborhood of the safehouse for an informant. I pointed out that they were probably not the best investigators for a bad part of town, but they tried anyway. Greex found a kobold to talk to and Attivi and Sven found someone else. After a little friendly questioning, I was improvising answers. They got a little more information on the suspects, including the detail that Rath was routinely beaten by orcs and probably wouldn't talk to them willingly, but they also got the detail that Luffare had been at the scene of the raid. Which was a good detail, as it established him as another potential suspect, but then I added the detail that the orcs had paid him off. Which was certainly too much information too early, and the PCs immediately fixated on him and I had to do some work to get them to investigate the other suspects.

PCs Cheat, but Don't Use Their Resources

I eventually pointed out the PCs could search for multiple people at a time, but they only had a few people with Streetwise or other skills useful for finding people so that wasn't true. They were also kind of reluctant or forgetful and didn't really take advantage of the literal army of people they had access to, which would have improved the odds of finding people. And when they heard that Rath left town, they didn't make any effort to track him down, which I thought was a little weird because Sven had a flying horse that could have overtaken a limping kobold on foot in less than an hour.

With a little prompting, the PCs found Lium and Ulvik and brought them in for questioning.

One thing that Sven did have was a helmet of mind reading. Mind-reading is one of those abilities that destroys suspense in mysteries, and the usual solution in role-playing games is to cripple mind-reading. I decided not to do that, and it meant that it was easy to verify that Ulvik was truthful when they finally questioned him: Sven read his mind and his surface thoughts matched what he was saying. Over time, I managed to find ways of expressing NPC's surface thoughts so that Sven's mind-reading was useful but not overwhelming, but at first, it did a good job of destroying the suspense of the mystery. A little annoying, but I think it would be more annoying to say to a player "your character spent resources on a powerful ability that I won't let you use because it ruins my planned plot."

With Ulvik's reliability unquestioned, it was pretty obvious that Lium was lying. Lium was detained. He tried to send a message to Luffare, but the PCs did a pretty good job of cutting that off - and of course, a clumsily worded message was pretty suspicious, too. Lium eventually got boxed in enough that the PCs got an confession from him: he had spotted Yulia by luck, told Luffare, and Luffare passed the information onto the orcs.

The PCs had solved the important parts of the mystery. Unfortunately, at this point I realized I hadn't really established a way to get from "Luffare and Lium are clearly guilty" to "And we know where Luffare is." I improvised by having Brianna want to go back and check on Diane Behm's sick grandkids, who Luffare was holding hostage at this point.

Solving Problems with Magic

When the PCs escorted Brianna to the hovel where the grandkids were still in hiding, they spotted that the door had been forced and sloppily replaced on its hinges. They sent Brianna back (and Greex retreated to a space a couple of blocks over to watch everyone's back because he is a serious coward) and Ariana pushed the door open.

Attivi puts almost everyone to sleep, and Trahaern dispatches two
goons by slamming them into walls with the shockwave of his
magic halberd.
Luffare and his brother had knives to the grandkids' throats, and other goons were holding Behm's daughter-in-law and her maid hostage. Ariana immediately offered herself up as  a hostage, while Uhuk started looking things up in Sorcery and Powers to determine if Attivi could modify his existing single-target sleep spell to take out a room. I pointed out that even the most quietly cast spell would trigger the villains' Waits, but Ariana and Sven worked to try to distract the villains.

Ariana took off most of her armor and went into the room. As she was swapping places with the granddaughter and Sven was trying to be distracting with Fast-Talk, Attivi cast his spell. Two of the hostage takers were too distracted to stab their victims immediately and both succumbed to the spell. Ariana and the maid took glancing blows to their necks (which Ariana could trivially heal with her healing prayers). Sven and Trahaern charged into the room, using their powerful magic weapons to slam the remaining goons into the walls. In literally seconds, the situation was resolved. It was a very impressive show of force by Attivi, who generally doesn't do much and in this situation took out 5 goons by himself.

Appointing a New Count

Kevin had asked if I had meant to set up a succession crisis: Diane Behm was survived by an adult daughter, a minor adopted son, and minor grandchildren of both sexes through her now deceased elder son. I hadn't, but I didn't want to lock the PCs into any particular pattern of inheritance either. All of Diane's family had issues, but if the PCs wanted to go with primogeniture or agnatic inheritance or whatever then they had that option. None of the options were particularly great options, but they had options.

As Yulia was an entitled brat who had already expressed her intent to work against them in Council, they rejected her. There was a brief discussion of appointing one of the children, but they decided that would mean a regency and it made more sense to just appoint any potential regent as Count. As Brianna was the only trustworthy and mildly competent person they'd dealt with in Grimstut, so she got the job.

Mopping Up

Trahaern took the army north at this point, heading for the Menkgu border. The plan was to work counterclockwise through the remaining orc forces with parts of the main army. The rest of the main army would be left behind to retrain in July so that a huge, professional, and skilled army could move into the forests and mountains of Zerniless in August (and face the 10,000 strong Orc legion they suspected was between them and their potential allies in the Fae Court). Meanwhile, the direct team took the Flying Boat and beat up a bunch of orcs in isolated garrisons, increasing Resistance control of Hanist.

Trahaern advances the main army in blue;
the direct action team moves in light blue;
Orcs advance in red.
This worked ideally, but there were some minor complications. A group of orcs, survivors of the Battle of Ravenrock Bridge, made a night attack on some Resistance militia west of Ravenrock. The orcs were planning on linking up with other survivors that had retreated to Berger. Unfortunately, they had launched their break-out at the worst time, just as the main army was marching up the road to Berger. A quick forced march and the army caught the orcs napping after their battle. Resistance scouts then reported that the Berger orcs had marched south, so Trahaern took the army north, dispersed those orcs, and went ahead and crossed the bridge to Berger and assaulted the citadel there. Trahaern's diminished army still had over 1000 troops in it, including pegasii and miners, and they trounced the remaining 100 orcs of the garrison pretty heavily.

The other minor complication was that while the direct action team could successfully smash a bunch of orcs in a castle, they couldn't hold the castle or even arrange for the local Resistance to take it. Instead, they threw out the orcs and left the castles abandoned. In the areas where there were no other orcs to do anything about it, this strategy worked fine, but the orcs of the Zerniless eventually moved down to investigate and reoccupied a castle in the northeast.

We ended the session there, with the PCs receiving word that Lubasser had been retaken and Trahaern's army taking a break in preparation for dealing with 600 orcs that were massing in Menkgu.

Review of Play

This was a very different session from most of them, obviously. I had never really run a murder mystery with the online group before, so it was great that I got to justify my purchase of GURPS Mysteries. There was also an excellent balance of role-playing, individual PC action, and Mass Combat: the PCs got to talk and complain about the villains, use their skills to find them, and then fight several small battles to clear out the orcs.

The mystery could have been stronger. I shouldn't have made Luffare such a focus so early, and I should have plotted a better transition from "Luffare is the villain!" to "Luffare has taken hostages!" It worked out, but it would have been a lot more enjoyable had I plotted it just a little better.

What Next?

The next session is going to consist of people reacting to events. The PCs have reached some orcs that are a little less lazy than some of the others they've dealt with, and those orcs are going things like retaking abandoned castles. The PCs are going to react to that, and the orcs are going to respond to what the PCs do. There may be some surprises here and there, but I that's mostly what's going to happen.

I'm working on some notes for a microdungeon in Venrike, but I don't think that's going to show up next session. I also have some notes for a long-awaited role-playing scene where a couple of common soldiers react to the rumors that Nayla is a demi-goddess, but that keeps getting pushed off in favor of other things.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

New Dawn Session 9: Enter the Villain

Precis: The PCs fight a powerful sorcerer.

I ran the ninth session of New Dawn a few months ago. It was a pretty short session, nust dealing with the fight between the PCs And the evil sorcerer general Arcane, which didn't last as long as I expected. I had nothing else prepared, so I ended the session early.

I wrote about half this report immediately after the session and then sat on it. Now it's a bit more of a retrospective.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy.

The Delvers

Sacrifice Denied

At the end of the previous session, the PCs were in the process of burglarizing the home of the evil sorcerer general Arcane. To their misfortune, Arcane had magical wards set up, which they had tripped. Arcane was also capable of teleportation, and has returned and hit them with a powerful spell that made them incapable of action while she read their minds.

The key elements of my portrayal of Arcane was that she was extremely arrogant and a sadist. She wasn't going to take the PCs seriously until they did some damage to her, and until then, she was going to toy with them. Having decided the PCs weren't a threat, she offered to let them live if they were willing to flee like cowards.

Of course, PCs being PCs, they wanted to fight. I pointed out that Nayla was badly wounded and Attivi was nearly dead, and that a tactical retreat, even if feigned, might be in order. But they were insistent that the time to fight was now, and Ariana charged forward, intending to slam Arcane back into the library and have Skyler shut the door, so that Arcane and Ariana could duel while the wounded healed with potions.

Arcane mostly dodged Ariana's charge, but it left her out of position and Skyler managed to close the door on her. Arcane was facing north with Ariana behind to the south. Arcane mocked Ariana for a bit, effortlessly parried her attacks without turning around, and then teleported back to where everyone else was. Ariana's attempted sacrifice came to naught.

Six armed Cpellcasting Cuisinart

The next several rounds went poorly for the PCs. Arcane was a Weapon Master with two dancing swords who also had 360 degree vision and a compartmentalized mind. She could launch four sword attacks while casting a spell and defending herself against whatever the PCs tried with a pair of magical, invisible arms holding invisible shields. She was also in extremely heavy armor, so even their infrequent lucky shots or meteoric iron weapons pretty much bounced off her armor.

Even so, Arcane's attacks were mostly ineffectual. It takes a lot of firepower to overwhelm a PC's defenses, especially if all the attacks are coming from a single source and the PC can apply a retreat bonus against all of them. She did manage to get another hit in against Nayla, but mostly Ariana, Nesta, and Skyler blocked her attacks.

I played up Arcane's arrogance and overconfidence throughout this. She didn't believe the Resistance was a threat, she thought she could take on all five PCs at once, and she figured after that she would spend a couple of days organizing the orcs and putting down the rebellion. She told the PCs of her plans and mocked them for their ineffectiveness against her.

Things Don't Go as Planned

Eventually the melee PCs managed to force Arcane away from Nayla, and she started firing meteoric arrows into Arcane's eyeslits. Arcane did have some armor for her eyes, but an unlucky dodge roll meant she still took a hit. Badly wounded and impaired, she launched her signature spell: a rolling cloud of white mist that was a persistent life leach effect, intended to kill all of them while healing her. Unfortunately, she couldn't set up the attack and teleport far enough away to prevent Nayla from shooting her in the other eye with a lucky shot.
Arcane duels the PCs as Nayla and Attivi bombard her with ranged attacks.

This was slightly frustrating for me. As the PCs would later discover, Nayla was a demi-god of some sort, and certain people in the know, such as Arcane, would recognize that fact when Nayla used her imbuement powers. But in this fight, for some reason, Nayla didn't use any imbued attacks. There was supposed to be a dramatic reveal that Nayla was something special and that it was related to some kind of ward that hadn't been breached, but that didn't happen. So a useful clue for setting up my ongoing story was lost because the PCs didn't cooperate.

Arcane's white mist of leeching death spell wasn't healing her as fast as it needed, and with her eyes shot out, she was mostly dead meat. Skyler used his signature weapon with enhanced knockback to hit her three times, sending her flying to the edge of the tor that they were fighting on. I figured that since Arcane wasn't going to accomplish anything in the fight, and it was dramatic and amusing this way, that I might as well redraw the map slightly and have her get sent over the end of the tor, so she could bounce her way down to her death in the castle courtyard. This wasn't a case of Never Found the Body: Arcane was very, very dead and her corpse was lying in the courtyard, surrounded by friendly soldiers. I just wanted a more dramatic send-off.

Answers Lead to More Questions

The PCs went back down to the courtyard and examined Arcane's corpse. It was pretty battered, but they removed the helmet. Arcane had been an extremely beautiful blonde with delicate features and pointed ears: almost certainly an elf. This immediately raised the question if she was a renegade elf in Imperial service, or if all the Luminals and masked nobility were actually elfs?

They poked around her villa some more, finding some books on magic written in an unknown script that resembled the Squallite and Fae scripts but was clearly different (much like the Hebrew and Arabic scripts are related to each other). They couldn't do much with that, but it was another bit of evidence for the "Luminals are elfs" theory.

They also found some nameplates in the common tongue, and discovered that Arcane was actually named Whitemist, and that "Arcane" was the title for an archmage. This didn't have a lot of bearing on the plot, but it reinforced my theme that the Resistance knew so little about the Luminals that they didn't even know their names or titles. Skyler pointed out that "Whitemist" was not a very scary name, and Attivi intuited that white was the Luminal color for death, so the name might have been more accurately translated as "Deathmist."

I hadn't prepared anything after this fight, so we ended the game at this point after about 3 hours of play time.

Edging Toward GM Burn-Out

I was getting really frustrated with the campaign at this point. I was putting a lot of effort into the game, and aside from Kevin, the players were not really engaging with it. It had the potential to be a really amazing, epic campaign, and there were some cool things that I wanted to do in the future that would engage me even if the players were less interested, but I was afraid I was going to just give up before we got to any of those stories.

Fortunately, we powered through to Stinecrice, which was the first of the really interesting setpieces I had planned. The game has been consistently good since then, despite some shuffling off the players. I'm no longer worried about burning out for a while, but it was touch and go for a bit there.

Review of Play

It's always hard, introducing a big solo villain. There's a fine line between push-over and unstoppable death machine. On paper, Arcane looked more like an unstoppable death machine, but in play, she was very stoppable. A huge part of the problem there was that I really misread the rules for switching Sorcery powers, so several of her nastier abilities should have persisted longer than they did and I should have been freer with switching out her spells as the situation demanded.

Another difficulty was that I didn't have a good sense of how powerful a high level sorcerer should be, and just kind of winged her spell effects. I've since done some math, and Arcane should have been much more powerful than she was. That just means the next Luminal will be much more powerful.

It wasn't really a bad thing to have a stoppable monster for the first big villain to show up. She was dangerous enough that the PCs were scared without being utterly destroyed. It would have been nice to kill a PC, to really put the fear into the players, but I don't have a group that would necessarily react to that with anything but despair and complaints about unfun! Which is sad sometimes, but you game with the group you have and not the group that John Wick claims he has.

I was bummed that Arcane didn't get to shout "What!? No! The Wards hold! You cannot be here!" before turning the full force of her destructive power on Nayla. At the time, it would have been as confusing as heck, and it would have set up the theme for when the demons at Stinecrice did the same thing. Also, it was a great line that I spent some time polishing. But as I've said here and there, this is a collaborative story-telling experience, not a novel that I'm reading to the players. A lot of the time, the PCs don't do what I want. I adapt and respond to what they do, not what I thought they would do or what I wanted them to do. That's important to me, because it means the game isn't a railroad.

What Next?

Focus shifted over the next couple of sessions to the army group that was tangling with orcs in central Hanist. I hope to write up what I remember of those sessions in the next few weeks.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

New Dawn Sessions 17-20: The Liberation of Hanist

Precis: Two new players are introduced as the PCs in my Fantasy Mass Combat game finally liberate their home nation by defeating two massive orc armies.

I've been running my GURPS Fantasy Mass Combat game New Dawn for the last six months. There's been some changes in the player roster, but we're mostly settled down again and having a good time.

The last four sessions have focused on the final elimination of the orc threat from Hanist, which has taken a surprisingly long time. I thought it would take two sessions, but it's been four and could go to five.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy but is branching out into military raids as the PCs become Mass Combat units in their own right.

The Army Team is usually
  • +Uhuk of the Guard's Attivi Valar - A budding sorcerer who's got tired of passive resistance.
  • +Eric Schmidt's Trahaern ab Owen - A war leader and brewer who has been waiting for his chance to kill orcs.
  • +Kevin Smyth's Aisling Mhic Muiris - A Sidhe war-leader and diplomat sent by the Fae Court to aid the Resistance.
    • Gharza Brokentooth - An orc sergeant and leader of some routed orcs
    • Rigar Gloomfang - An orc colonel and leader of other routed orcs
  • Kiara Schmidt's Greex "Wrongway" - Kobold spymaster and thief determined to lead his people to freedom.
    • Greex "Toadstool" and Brula "Bignose" - Two kobolds seeking justice
The army team only has 4 members because the new players haven't created their second set of characters.

The Covert Action/Delving/Diplomacy/Direct Action team is usually
Both teams were present in these sessions, switching in and out as we focused on various things.

In session 20, Ben Zittere joined us and played some of the NPCs. I was not certain that having someone else play some of my PCs was going to work, but it turned out to be really fun.

Resting Up, Making Plans

After the previous sessions, the players decided that they would take a break until the end of May in-game. This would allow them to give their tired armies a break, reorganize them, and let the first batch of new recruits finish training and report for duty. I warned them that the orcs would take the opportunity to do some movement of their own, but they said they were fine with that.

By this point in the game, I was beginning to feel that the PCs weren't being challenged enough fighting a couple of orc garrison companies at a time. My original notes for the game had a very vague plan of having the PCs fight partial companies, then lone companies, then groups of companies, then regiments, then legions as they worked their way up the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. For some reason, I decided that was a a bad plan and skipped past the regiments step to groups of regiments.

I started by creating a new map of the entire western theater of the war. The new map was at a large enough scale that individual villages and orc strongholds disappeared: all that mattered were counties and orc fortresses. Then I plotted out some movement for the orcs: about 2000 orcs in the northern half of the country moved to northern citadel of Landzby, while 3500 orcs in the south moved into the fortress of Rundbord. I generated commanders for the orcs - the northern orcs under Colonel Rolg were cursed with a Megalomaniac Lazy Bully with so-so strategic skills, while the southern orcs under Colonel Prulo had a mostly sane and defensive minded commander. The northern orcs had access to better roads and learned about the PCs' takeover of the capitol first, so even though their commander was lazy, they assembled first and were ready to move out on June 1st; the southern orcs weren't assembled until the 7th and didn't move out until the 11th.

The great thing about doing all this was that the orcs had plans that were established before I knew what the PCs were going to do. They weren't necessarily good plans, but they were plans. The northern orcs were going to make a leisurely march down to Ravenrock, which was still in orcish hands at the time, and cross the river on June 5th, besiege Elverum, and wipe out the Resistance. On the 11th, the southern orcs were going to leave Rundbord, besiege Grimstut on the 13th, and move up to Kristinsund by the 15th, with plans to hold there. If the northern orcs had wiped out the Resistance, the rebellion would be over, and if not, the southern orcs would hopefully be able to defend the Elverum-Kristinsund bridge, with heavy casualties. If the Resistance moved to fast and had forces in Grimstut, the orcs would fortify south of Grimstut and let the PCs attack them across that river instead.

My assumption was that the PCs would defeat the northern orcs at the Ravenrock bridge, and then get caught in a siege against superior forces at Grimstut. Looking for an out, they would use the flying boat and the covert action team (which at this point was roughly equal to an orc company by themselves, but with much better leadership) to raise Resistance forces in Mortilbaser, Buctun, and Rundbord, and cut the orc supply lines and starve them out. The orcs would counter and it would all be very exciting. Of course, the PCs didn't do that.

Establishing A Government

We started session 17 with a big role-playing scene: establishing the government. It has always been an ironclad rule of the game that it is very PC centric, and the PCs are the movers and shakers that everyone reacts to. The PCs are the de facto rulers of the Liberated Lands, whatever form of government there is, and they don't have to report to anyone. But it's also been a rule that NPCs are allowed to bitch, moan, and politic for their preferred positions, and at my prompting, the PCs finally decided to set down some rules.

There was a pretty interesting discussion about the pros and cons of monarchy versus a dictatorship versus some kind of junta, but apparently democracy was entirely off the table. It was all going back and forth when suddenly everyone agreed that Trahaern should be appointed Consul and made top dog. A ruling council was established, and various people were suggested for various roles before they arrived on this structure:
  • Consul Trahaern, absolute ruler for the duration of the Rebellion.
  • Ruling Council of Counts and other advisors, generally the heads of Resistance organizations in each county. Attivi got promoted to Count Duzen Iken. Ariana was made High Priestess. Hloomawl, as the most approachable of the main PCs who wasn't a general, became Tribune of the Army and representative of the enlisted soldier. Greex got the title of Speaker of Kobolds to represent kobold interests.
  • Aisling and Mikael were observers on the Ruling Council, as they were both representatives of allied nations.
  • Nesta and Nayla declined any promotions and continued to serve as individuals, but as the sister of the Consul and a suspected demi-god they probably still had a lot of clout.
After a couple of hours of this, we moved on to the orc menace.

The Orcs Move Out

On June 2nd, the PCs at Elverum received word that the orcs had moved south out of Landzby. They immediately made a forced march of the entire army to the Ravenrock bridge and began setting up fortifications. The covert operation team staged an aerial siege of Ravenrock Castle the next day, and mostly dispersed the orcs in a confused fight. Unfortunately for them, while they could beat 80 orcs in a castle, they would have gotten wiped out by 2000 orcs assaulting the same castle, so they did what damage they could to the Castle and retreated back over the river. The orcs, arriving at Ravenrock Castle that evening, were confused and spent an extra day sitting around doing nothing.

The Liberation Army waited on the east side of the bridge, recovering from their forced march and waiting for the orcs.

Army movement for Session 17: PCs in blue, orc gathering in orange, orc army movement in red.
White indicates the borders of liberated territory.

Ambush at Ravenrock Bridge

Colonel Rolg, who apparently was not very good at paying attention to current events, decided that despite the destruction of the Ravenrock garrison, his forces were undetected by the Resistance. He proceeded to have a parade across the bridge on June 5th. The Liberation Army was waiting on the other side, behind concealed fortifications.

In GURPS Mass Combat, assaulting across a bridge is hard: most troops lose half their effective strength for doing so. That was enough to put the orc army at close to parity in force strength with the Liberation Army, and Trahaern was a ridiculously better general with a ridiculously better intelligence chief. The orcs were badly slaughtered in the first round but managed to rally; they made a tentative attack on the second round and took another 40% casualties. At that point, Colonel Prulo would have need a critical success to Trahaern's critical failure to eke out enough of a victory to have his shattered forces retreat without being destroyed. He did not get one and 65% of the orcs were killed in the battle and the remaining 35% dispersed.

Of course, 35% of 2000 is still close to 800 troops. Most of the Orc survivors fled north, back to Landzby, but significant forces fled to Vartop and Avvinsee instead. The PCs decided to hold off on pursuit and shifted focus to their southern flank. They took the Flying Boat and did a long range scouting run on the orcs at Rundbord and discovered that army was even larger than the one they had just defeated. We ended the session with the PCs' army moving south to Elvby.

Changing Plans

The 18th session was the first one when we had Chris as a player. I made him play Himmel or Mikael, so if things didn't work out, he wouldn't disrupt the game by adding and then dropping a character. Fortunately, it worked out.

The PCs had originally planned to move their army south, hold the city of Grimstut, and face down the southern orc horde there. At the start of this session, they got a wild hair and decided to do clever and tricky stuff instead. The direct action team of Aisling, Himmel, Hloomawl, Nayla, and Nesta was certainly capable of conquering an orc held castle, and they figured they could use this to their advantage. The direct action team would raise a rebellion around Avvinsee and conquer the fortress but let some orcs escape to Rundbord. Then, in the PCs' minds, the orcs would march to deal with upstarts. Meanwhile, Trahaern's army would march southwest to Avvinsee and ambush the orcs from inside the castle.

What with one thing and another, this took longer to arrange than intended, and the PCs didn't make it to the area around Avvinsee until the 9th. They spent the day recruiting, and then marched their new army of 330 poorly armed peasants toward the castle on the 10th. They also spotted a group of orcs, routed at Ravenrock, getting lost in the hills around Avvinsee.

Aisling took Hloomawl and the flying boat to meet up with the orcs and convince them to switch sides. It was a bit difficult, even for her, but she succeeded and the PCs got a new army of disloyal and unequipped orcs. Militarily, they're not very useful, but they've set up a lot of role-playing fodder so that's worked out.

Meanwhile, Himmel made a forced march to reach Avvinsee, and the overconfident orcs came out to meet him. But without Hloomawl, the PCs weren't nearly as capable as they expected, and Himmel's habit of using high risk, high casualty All-Out Attacks didn't work out very well. The human army and the orc army took roughly equal casualties and Himmel failed both his Misfortunes of War checks in the first two rounds and was knocked unconscious. The leader of the Avvinsee Resistance stepped up to replace him and started using cautious, defensive tactics, but the situation was pretty bad and night had fallen. Fortunately for the PCs, the orc leader wasn't doing well on his Misfortunes of War rolls either, and he decided to break contact with 50% casualties on his force and 2 HP remaining. The human leader let the orcs flee and recovered their casualties.

Two days later, Trahaern showed up with 1200 troops and a masterful spy master. He rolled over the orcs in Avvinsee and got into a big argument with Aisling over her recruiting the orcs. There was a bunch of shouting but it was eventually resolved with the orcs not being immediately executed.
Army movement for Session 18: PC army in blue, flying boat movement in light blue, orc army movement in red.
White indicates the borders of liberated territory.

"Man, You Can't Trust Orcs For Anything!"

The PCs then tried to salvage the remnants of their clever plans. Trahaern's army started concealing themselves in Avvinsee and Aisling decided to use her secret identity as an orc collaborator to prod the Rundbord orcs into action.

At Rundbord, Aisling discovered that most of the orcs had left for Grimstut the day before. The remaining commander was about as lazy as an orc got, and although he was interested in the report that a bunch of rebels were besieging Avvinsee, he wasn't so interested as to actually do anything. Aisling eventually begged him for the loan of a wolf courier, and she took a terrifying overnight ride to meet up with the orcs.

On the way to Grimstut, Aisling encounter Colonel Prulo's forces of 3300 orcs. She told him of the siege of Avvinsee, but she couldn't convince him to turn his army around. Instead, he sent Colonels Rigar and Krag and their regiments (~1300 troops) back to clear the rebels out while his main force continued to Grimstut. Frustrated, Aisling slunk off . Then she realized that while she could magically broadcast her location to the Resistance and have them send the Flying Boat to pick her up, she couldn't encode the message or prevent the orc wizards from overhearing. She ended up spending the next day or two hiking to get away from the orcs and safely arrange a pickup.

The Brief Second Siege of Avvinsee

Colonels Rigar and Krag raced their forces up to Avvinsee, where they saw human rebels besieging the orc fortress. They immediately charged to the relief, at which point the hidden Resistance forces popped up from behind the walls and began letting loose on the orcs. Trahaern and Greex firmly had the battle in hand and the orcs failed to recover from the ambush on the first turn. Some 800 Orc troops survived to flee back to Rundbord, broken and abandoning their equipment. Trahaern elected not to pursue.

That was the end of the 18th session.

A Matter of Justice

We started the 19th session with a big role-playing scene. Another new player, Raven, had joined us and was playing Mikael while Chris was switching over to his permanent character of Sven.

A pair of kobolds timidly approached Mikael on the night of the 14th, after the Second Siege was over. They were new recruits to the logistics force after the Battle of Ravenrock Bridge, and had marched south with the orcs from Bergen. They had also recognized a pair of orcs from Aisling's new army as the orcs that had robbed and murdered their half-sister, and they wanted justice.

Mikael took the issue to Trahaern, Greex, and Hloomawl, and they collected Aisling and went to confront Sergeant Gharza. Sergeant Gharza was a new NPC, the highest ranking survivor of Ravenrock Bridge in this particular batch of orcs. Aisling wanted to make an example of how justice was going to be handled in her new army.

The kobolds identified Parz, Gharza's assistant, as the orc that had robbed their half-sister and Erigor, another orc, as the one who had actually done the murder. Aisling demanded Parz' punishment and Erigor's execution. Gharza attempted to defend the orcs in a fairly incompetent manner, at first disbelieving that anyone would care about kobolds and moving on to calling the kobolds liars and claiming there was no proof that anything had happened or that the kobolds had any claim to justice. Hloomawl and Trahaern got progressively angrier and eventually Gharza shut up. Aisling paid the kobolds out of her own pocket and Parz and Erigor got punished.

"How Was I Supposed to Know!"

The PCs were settling down to watch Erigor's execution when a herd of pegasii (Kevin swears this is the correct Greek plural of Pegasus) flew up to the castle and started circling around. Alarms were sounded, weapons were readied, and Greex had to defend himself against charges of being a bad spymaster. In his defense, the pegasii could fly 100+ miles a day, and it wasn't really reasonable to expect him to know about forces moving around behind orc lines.

In short, Sven was introduced: a brash rebel from the northern plains. He had rescued a bunch of pegasii from an Orc breeding farm, and was riding the biggest and most impressive of the studs. Magnus, the pegasus champion, was also introduced at this time, and I'm afraid I rather stole the show from Chris. As I played him, Magnus was vain, slightly dimwitted, indiscreet, and inadvertently hilarious. He insulted all the other PCs as a bunch of "piebald ragmuffins," though he acknowledged the red-haired nymph Aisling as "the good looking roan," called Sven a "sack of onions in the saddle" (rather unfairly, as Sven is an excellent rider), and was generally disdainful. He was gracious when he was invited to the Council of War, though.

Anyway, introductions were made and the PCs decided to use their new air support to keep track of the orcs. Trahaern reversed his army, heading back to Elvby with plans to move south to Grimstut. Himmel held Avvinsee with the militia against any orc movement to the north, and the direct action team loaded up the Flying Boat with plans to fly southeast and cut the orc supply lines by conquering Buctun, Mortilbaser, and the citadel of Soroverstine.

The Champion Meets the Smith

The morning of the 15th, the direct action team was armoring up and getting ready. Magnus ogled Hloomawl's expertly crafted armor, apologized to the prince of minotaurs for snubbing him the night before, and asked where he got it. On learning that Ariana had made it, Magnus dispatched Sven to acquire some for him, because it was beneath Magnus' dignity to talk to the "help". Sven protested the non-egalitarian attitude but decided to avoid a horsey snit-fit by talking to Ariana. She, in turn, was encouraged by her kobold assistants to turn out something in a hurry. Magnus was impressed by his new very fine chest barding, but whined that it would look better on him in black to properly set up the color contrast against his shining white hair. Ariana spontaneously learned how to cosmetically control metal and walked over and tapped the barding with her hammer, turning it black. Magnus was pleased and all the players were rolling on the floor with laughter.

Freedom for Cape Sood

The PCs put their plan to free southwest Hanist into motion by flying to Buctun and meeting up with an 80 strong army of Resistance fighters who had trained in the wood and were armed and armored with smuggled weapons. They spent a day marching their army to Buctun and then assaulted the fortress. Sven showed his chops as a command, forcing the orcs to retreat north (where, as it turned out, they got ambushed by the next bunch of Resistance fighters).

Army movement for Session 19: PC army in blue, flying boat movement in light blue, orc army movement in red.
Green indicates the arrival of Sven's forces and light green for the pegasii movements.
White indicates the borders of liberated territory.

The next day, the PCs made an effort to get started early. They assaulted Mortilbaser by themselves, dispersed the orcs, and hurried on to Soroverstine. They weren't as interested in taking control of this territory as they were in breaking the orc control; they were going to leave it to the local Resistance to secure the citadels. There was no chance that would come back to haunt them. At any rate, Sven was an amazing strategist and the orc commanders at the two fortresses were subpar; the direct action team easily defeated them.

The Failure of Cavalry

Colonel Prulo had conquered Grimstut and was moving toward Kristensund, sweeping the meager Liberation militia forces out of his way, when he learned about Colonel Rigar's and Krag's defeat at Avvinsee. Prulo immediately went back to Grimstut and began fortifying the castle there. He also began taxing everything in sight and started using the money to maintain his troops and start enslaving the militia survivors as living shields in his own army. Finally, he dispatched his last subordinate, Colonel Kilar, with all of their cavalry to take the unfortified city of Kristensund. Krilar also had orders to fall back if the Liberation army approached from the north, unless he could hold them at the Kristinsund-Elverum bridge.

When Trahaern's army showed up northwest of Kristinsud, with Sven's new light cavalry leading the scouting forces, I checked Krilar's abilities. He was another overconfident, offense minded, megalomaniac, and he failed his common sense roll to not tangle with Sven's cavalry. As Sven's cavalry was backed by Sven's skilled heavy cavalry, his Pegasii flying heavy cavalry, and eventually the entirety of Trahaern's infantry army, Krilar soon found outmatched, outnumbered, and surrounded. Krilar attempted a general retreat which turned into a rout, and of the 500 cavalry attacked Sven's forces, less than 200 survived to return to Grimstut. Krilar made it back but was immediately executed.

Balancing Act

The PCs noticed that there were 800 broken orcs at Rundbord, and after the direct action team finished conquering Groanridder castle to the west, they decided to do something about that. Aisling, Himmel, the Avvinsee militia, and the direct action team met up at Rundbord and started negotiating. The terms were generous: surrender and serve the Liberation with pay, or resist and be destroyed at Rundbord. After some hemming and hawing, Colonel Rigar surrendered. About half the orcs decided to join the army, and the rest are prisoners of war that the PCs don't know what to do with yet.

By this point, it was 9:10 my time. It was too late to run the battle with Prulo at Grimstut, but I didn't quite want to end the session. I quickly checked with the existing players if they liked Raven. The response was positive and I made sure that Raven wanted to continuing playing. That response was also positive. Raven had spent the week coming up with a new character, Zarathras the young dragon, so I decided to introduce him immediately.

Colonel Rigar took the PCs into his basement dungeon and showed them his most awesome prisoner: a baby dragon, muzzled and enchained. Hloomawl immediately freed Zarathras and there was a short introduction. That filled the remainder of the time, and we ended the 19th session there.

"Are you Monster, or a Man Eating Monster?"

The session started with more reaction to Zarathras. He was willing to join the Resistance, but the others PCs were wary of him. When Zarathras said that he wanted to kill and eat the orcs that had abused him, that didn't help matters. After a fair bit of discussion, Zarathras agreed that getting identified as a "man eating monster" would not do much for his desire to improve human-dragon relations. He then wanted to personally murder those orcs, but was talked down to just having them executed.

A Question of Conscience

On the morning of June 21, Zarathras and rest of the direct action team flew to meet up with the army that was marching on Grimstut. I had already told them via email between games that the Orcs were enslaving humans, arming them, and mixing them among their own troops. An all-out assault on the fortress would get those humans killed in large numbers, and since many of them were members of the Grimstut militia that had been overwhelmed by the massive Orc army, the PCs were reluctant to kill them.

True to form, my players had briefly debated what to do, failed to come to any decisions, and pretty much dropped the issue. So when it came up again in play, they still didn't have any plans. I said they could not use their archers against the Orcs, and that would reduce casualties, but it would also give the orcs a significant advantage in a siege that was only narrowly going for the PCs to start. The PCs didn't like that, and had a desultory conversation about what they could do. Short on ideas, they eventually decided to try to parley and get the orcs to surrender, or at least leave Hanist.
Army movement for Session 20: PC army in blue, flying boat movement in light blue, orc army movement in red.
White indicates the borders of liberated territory.

"Come, humans! Show me your strength again!"

Ben had asked to lurk on the game and offered to play some NPC parts if I thought that would help. I decided to let him play Colonel Prulo in the upcoming negotiations and gave him a quick sketch of the orc leader: convinced he was destined to win, certain of the strength of his defenses, and scared of Murzush, the fanatic orc commander of the garrison at Stinecrice who wanted revenge on the PCs. Ben happily stepped up to the task.

The negotiations didn't go well. The PCs didn't have much to offer Prulo except surrender on terms and exile from his country; Prulo wasn't interested. Aisling had been left been with the orcs at Rundbord, so the PCs didn't have a dedicated negotiator and their Intimidation skills weren't really all that high. Eventually the PCs turned away, but Nayla decided to break the parley and try to assassinate Prulo with a Guided arrow the eye.

Unfortunately, Prulo was expecting an attack and had two bodyguards; three shields snapped up and intercepted the arrow. Prulo immediately commanded all the orc crossbowmen on the walls to counterfire, and though the PCs ran for a couple of seconds, they were still well within range when 10 orcs fired at each of them. Ariana and Hloomawl managed to get their shields up, and Hloomawl even managed to block for Nayla, but Trahaern took a couple of bolts that penetrated armor and Zarathras, who had joined the negotiations in his human form (and without armor!) got perforated with three and almost forced into a death check. Hloomawl picked him up and the PCs fled as the orcs reloaded, and they managed to make it to a rough trenchline before the orcs reloaded, aimed, and fired.

Ben had Prulo taunt the PCs as they fled, which was a nice touch that I wouldn't have thought of and didn't have time to do anyway. Having Ben play Prulo really improved that entire scenario, as he was much more clever with his insults and bragging that I was, and it meant that I could spend more time with Murzush and his crazy rants. All that, and I didn't have to talk to myself when the NPCs argued!

Slow Learner

Trahaern decided to assault the castle at dawn the next day. Ariana took the time to summon a bunch of fellow worshipers of the Forge-God Volundr and have a big, long prayer to save the enslaved humans. With time and help, Ariana easily made the petition roll, and with the lives of many people depending on a miracle, she even managed to get a Good result on the reaction roll. Volundr assured her that the least of his works would not harm those pledged to his care, and (after recovering from her shock at unambiguously getting an answer, however cryptic it might have been) she went and told Trahaern that he could safely deploy his archers.

Zarathras had pretty good night vision, so he decided to overflow the castle and do some scouting at night. Of course, orcs and goblins have infravision, and could easily see the fiery hot dragon. I asked Raven how high Zarathras was flying, and he said 150 yards - beyond of half-damage range of most orc crossbows when fired at a high angle, but not beyond all of them. I had told him that were 300-400 orc crossbowmen, but he was confident in his armor and his speed.

Orc crossbowmen are pretty skilled, with accurate bows. 120 of them fired at an effective 300 yards after aiming for the maximum amount of time, and it worked out that about a third of them hit. Only 10 of them were in full damage range, and could potentially damage the dragon - but all of them were using bodkin heads. Half of the bolts penetrated his armor, nearly knocking him unconscious. Zarathras climbed 50 yards while they reloaded, and weathered the next volley easily, but he decided that scouting was for the birds and limped back to the Resistance lines.

A Short Sharp Shock

Murzush was one of the first player created NPCs in the game: Kevin had mentioned him as a particularly viscious orc with a magic weapon in an wiki article on example magic weapons for Enchantment Through Deeds, and I'd been meaning and forgetting to use him since then. He was originally the commander of the garrison at Duzen Iken, but I forget to use him and moved him to Stinecrice, where I forgot about him again. Then he was going to feature in the orcs in Session 17, but got busy and forgot again. So I decided to have a couple of rounds of personal scale combat at the start of the battle so Murzush could menace people properly. This maybe wasn't the best idea I've ever had, as it was already getting late and personal combat can be slow, but I figured I'd give it a try.

The scenario was that the PCs were leading the charge when the gates were breached, which was pretty reasonable given their Risk Modifiers and general tendencies. The orc commanders were on the other side, and a short range melee broke out (though orc sharpshooters on the walls were firing down intermittently on the PCs).
Murzush and his goons wrap around Ariana, while Sven and Hloomawl defeat Prulo.
Trahaern used his magic staff to jump over and behind the orc line and
Nayla stands well behind the PC line to provide fire support.

The combat was short, but not particularly quick. Blows were exchanged, people defended, and then Chris rolled double critical hits for his attacks on Colonel Prulo. Prulo burnt Destiny points to cancel one of the criticals, but the second caused a hit that rolled maximum damage on the dice (normal damage on the critical hit, go figure) and Sven managed to stab through Prulo's armor with a mighty blow. Sven's sword was also enchanted to explode for 1d cr ex as a follow-up, and Chris rolled maximum damage on that, too, x3 for an internal explosion. Prulo went from unwounded to nearly dead in a single blow, and fell unconscious immediately.

That was basically round two of the fight. I really wanted to resolve the Mass Combat and it was already 9:15 my time, so I ended the combat at the end of that round and moved back to the Mass Combat.

Trahaern the Ever Victorious

Trahaern launched an All-Out Assault on the castle walls into Prulo's defense. Prulo rolled well, and Trahaern didn't, but Prulo was Strategy-15 to Trahaern's Strategy-24 and Trahaern had a larger and better army. In the end, Trahaern edged out a victory at a high cost in casualties in the first round.
In the second round, Trahaern went for a Indirect Attack (ie, a feigned retreat to draw some of the orcs out) while Prulo defended again. This time, Trahaern won by 10, doubled to 20 for successful Indirect Attempt, and massacred the orcs to a total of 60% casualties at no losses. We didn't play out the last rounds, but Trahaern was at +11 over his starting point at this point and even the mixed result he got on the first round would have been an overwhelming massacre of the orcs with that much extra bonus. Trahaern put the surviving orcs to the sword, most of the human militia survived, and we ended the game.

After liberating Grimstut (again), I declared that Hanist was effectively liberated. There were still over a thousand orcs still in the country, but if they weren't capable of defeating a smaller PC army in with 2400 orcs, 12 fights against 100 orcs wouldn't be a problem against a much larger PC army (new recruits had been completing training and joining the army all through June). That was worth a lot of CP for each PC, so they'll hopefully even be more capable for the next set of challenges.

Review of Play

So this was a long four sessions, but each session was generally really good. There was a lot of role-playing and a fair bit of mass combat, and if the individual combat and dungeon delving was a little neglected, I consoled myself with the thought that Stinecrice had been three sessions in a row of that. My balance of gaming experiences on a per session basis is kind of wonky, but over the course of the campaign it's been pretty good.

The 17th session went pretty much how I expected, and the 18th session went off-script. Which is fine, because gaming is a collaborative experience and there's no reason to put the game on rails. The PCs did stuff that I didn't expect, and I rolled with it. It had the effect of splitting up Colonel Prulo's overwhelming force into three bite-sized chunks, which is what I expected in the end. They just took a different route.

The 19th session didn't advance the plot very much, but it was super enjoyable, and that's what's really important in a social and entertainment activity. I had pretty much written up Magnus on my own because Chris wasn't working fast enough for me, and I really got into the role of the slightly dim but very vain pegasus. Chris is an engaged and engaging role-player in his own right, and I felt bad for overshadowing him with his own horse, but he was a very good sport about it.

The 20th session was just a bit too much for four hours. I don't think it had to be that way: if the PCs had came in with a plan to deal with the humans enslaved at Grimstut, we could have done everything I tried to do in the session. Instead, there was a bit of dead time as they brainstormed. I was disappointed, but I can only provide opportunities for a great game: the players have to meet me part of the way. Sometimes they exceed that requirement and drive the game with little input from me, and sometimes they do a bit less and parts of the session are flabby. It's gaming. It will still a good session, just a little too packed and badly paced.

The 20th session was a good example of the emergent nature of the narrative in the game. In my planning for these sessions, I knew that Prulo was a defensive general, but I didn't know he was going to enslave the humans and cause problems by doing that. But after Aisling tricked him into sending half his army into defeat, he knew he wanted to fort up in a castle. And then he realized that he would need reinforcements, and since there was no reasonable source of Orc reinforcements at hand, he started enslaving humans. That, in turn, made the final battle for the Liberation of Hanist into a proper and challenging climax, as opposed to Trahaern just walking up with his army and knocking the place over. I was really pleased with how that worked out.

In four sessions, the group added two new players and a very active observer. Adding new players is always a challenge: even if they're the nicest people in the world, there's differences in expectations and social contract from their previous experiences. It worked out in the end, but there were a couple of rough patches.

"Is the character creation system ... as rigid as it seems?"

Both new players thought the character creation rules were restrictive. It was a difficult question to answer: on the one hand, PCs have to conform to a template, and there's only 6 major roles and maybe 7-8 minor roles that are any good, so there's only space for ~50 unique character combinations. And some people feel that working with any template on a freeform system like GURPS is too restrictive. On the other, I've edited the game world to support PC requests (Minotaurs were originally on the side of the Empire, while Tzavarim and the Fae weren't even on the map until the players requested them) and I'm pretty flexible about players going off template to achieve things that I hadn't thought of. So it was a combination of yes and no.

It worked out in the end. Chris got a rabble-rousing cavalryman on a flying steed (he dithered on riding bears for a while, which would have been differently awesome) and Raven got his dragon spellcaster. I am firmly of the opinion that if you're playing a generic fantasy game and the GM allows you to play a dragon, character creation isn't too rigid.

"Isn't Himmel supposed to be a good general?"

The other problem we had was that I started the new players on some old PCs. I did this because I wasn't sure the group would like them or that they would like the group. I think the group is fabulous but I get that we're not to everyone's tastes. I wanted new players to have a chance to test the waters and back out without changing the game world, so Chris played Himmel and Raven played Mikael.

The problem with Himmel is that while he has a big, easily defined personality of "lecherous braggart daredevil warleader," his character sheet was very unoptimized. Chris threw himself into the role with gusto, and everyone appreciated his role-playing, but his abilities as a general were subpar and he lost what should have been an easy fight. I apologized to Chris and optimized the character after the game, but the damage was done. At least I learned from my mistake, and I made sure Mikael was optimized.

Of course, Mikael had the opposite problem: even optimized, his personality was pretty undefined. "Secretive", "Snarky in combat", and "Soldier's Code of Honor" are not enough to role-play a new character. I'd asked Raven to go ahead and edit the character, but he didn't. So while Raven is a good role-player, he didn't have much to work with and his version of Mikael didn't contribute much to the game. That was one of the reasons I wanted to throw Zarathras in as soon as I could: I figured with a better character, Raven would make a better impression and enjoy the game more. That worked out okay.

Observer? Adversary?

Ben had seen the posting for new players and responded after we were full, but I mentioned we allowed observers and invited him to lurk. He responded by offering to play any minor or major NPCs. I've never had an Adversary player before, and I was dubious at first, but decided to give it a try. Which worked out really well, as Ben threw himself into his roles and really brought a lot to the game. I really appreciated having a second person who could speak as an NPC, because it meant two NPCs could have a conversation without it just being the GM talking to himself. I know I've mentioned that already, but it was really incredible from my side of the screen.

I've invited Ben to continue as an Adversary player, and possibly a co-GM if he wants it. I'm too used to having the final say in rule decisions to be really comfortable with a co-GM, but I am also very committed to letting the players have editorial control of the world and it would be unnatural to not let the Adversary in on the fun. Ben is mulling the offer, but at a minimum, he's going to continue playing minor NPCs. Which will require a little more work on my part, but the payout will justify the effort.

What's Next?

Next session is going to be some role-playing and some Mass Combat to chase the last of the orcs out of Hanist. I'm looking for a good next delve: one of the problems with the game, as I've set it up, is that most delve sites should have been looted by the enemy decades ago. I think I have a partial solution for that, but it's definitely a hole in the campaign set-up that I didn't realize until I got farther in.