Zhaojun Chronicle

Zhaojun Chronicle: Session #3.1

With a week before he needed to report aboard the Pearl of Danaa’d, Zhao Suria Lautan decided to visit his family, who lived in a manor overlooking Jantan’s Hook, a giant-frog ranching village two days’ travel from Goldenseal. Lautan and his valet, Bozhao Three Gills, traveled there in a jouncing carriage along with Lautan’s aunt—Zhao Yujen Sutera, an elderly widow with a passion for gambling—and her middle-aged maid.

Aside from the aches and pains accompanying a carriage ride along rutted country roads, they encountered nothing noteworthy until they reached Jantan’s Hook. In the village’s dim, noisy teahouse—where they lost Sutera to a game involving a rooster pecking at dice—they spoke to Three Gills’ ne’er-do-well brother Six Fingers, who shared tales of the weird hybrid creatures that had been seen near the village in recent weeks. These ranged from a flightless feathered badger, currently on display in the family manor after being stuffed by Lautan’s father, to a full-sized chimera of giant frog and grizzly bear. Tracks suggested that some of these creatures had come from the steep, overgrown hills to the southeast—an area uninhabited in living memory.

Returning to his ancestral manor, Lautan raised the matter at dinner with his family. His mother Duandai, the head of the household, agreed with his assessment that a giant frog-bear could be a threat to the village, while his father Zhiye suggested that the creature’s size was probably exaggerated. “Frog-wife’s tales,” Zhiye scoffed. “You know how people can be.” He added that Lautan should take his seventeen-year-old brother Tanlo along to track the beast, saying the boy could use some seasoning.

Tanlo himself wandered in out of the rain at this time. After he and Lautan sniped at one another for a bit, conversation meandered to Lautan’s work, his friendship with his cousin Merak—of whom his father disapproved—and the crippling tribute paid to the Blessed Isle. Lautan complained about the Realm’s interference in Zhaojun, which caused his grandmother Laolei to ramble on for a time about how things were better in the old days before Zhaojun bowed its head to the Realm. His parents argued that the Realm was there to stay. “The only power to resist the Realm is on the far side of the world,” said Duandai

Amid the debris of the last course, Zhiye pressed his elder son about the possibility of a daughter-in-law. Lautan attempted to deflect the issue to his younger brother—“Tanlo’s a looker,” he protested—but he eventually agreed to see the village astrologer the next day about when the time would be right to marry. He then returned to his room—which his family had left unchanged even after he left to pursue his naval career—to rest.

The next day, Lautan led a force gathered by Three Gills to track down the frog-bear. This included a couple of local hunters and a dozen youths armed with spears and hooked frog-nets. They found later that morning in a wooded area, sunning itself in the river. Intending to capture the creature alive, Lautan positioned the group in the lower boughs with nets. Failing to persuade any of the youths to act as bait and lure it into the trap, he and Three Gills stood beneath the nets and fired blunt arrows to sting the frog-bear into action.

The first part of the plan worked perfectly. The beast—large and hirsute as a bear, with greasy froglike limbs and a frog’s head—lumbered forward into the trees. Unfortunately, the nets did not snare it effectively, and it tore them away with vicious ursine claws. At Lautan’s order, the hunters and youths leapt down with their spears, only for one lad to have his head bitten clean off! As spearpoints failed to do more than scratch the frog-bear, it smacked Three Gills away from it, the boy trailing blood as he rolled downslope toward the river.

By the time Lautan himself drew his sword and engaged the beast, it had slain both trackers and half the youths, sending the rest fleeing. But his first stroke drew blood, shearing through fur and cutting deeply into its side. It snapped and kicked at him, but he dodged its strokes and slashed it across the nose. Shocked by the sudden pain, it fled to the river. Lautan pursued, only to have it turn on him at the river’s edge. Both struck simultaneously; his blade stabbed into its open mouth, piercing its brain, and it sagged and died.

After hacking the thing’s head off—as a trophy, or perhaps simply to satisfy himself that it was really dead—Lautan returned to where the survivors groaned. Three Gills’ arm had been mangled, while the side of Tanlo’s once-handsome face had been torn open, destroying an eye. Lautan shook his head. “Mom’s gonna kill me,” he said.

Zhaojun Chronicle: Session #2.4

Final episode of the session, starring Zhao Suria Lautan, our Eclipse-to-be naval officer (and the Night-to-be’s distant cousin). No dice rolls at all; the social rules stayed completely out of the way when we didn’t need them.


Displaying the seal of the Ministry of the Heavenly Sword stamped upon his orders, Zhao Suria Lautan entered the magnificent Summer and Winter Palace. It perches on a low hill, so that one might look out from its minarets upon the city of Goldenseal, but where Lautan stood, he could see only the palace complex itself—its lush gardens, its walls thick with bas-reliefs, its wings and turrets and pagodas of polished stone and gold leaf. As a guard escorted him into one of the larger structures and through a maze of corridors and chambers, he passed a handful of officials resplendent in silken robes, their caps dripping with tassels and semiprecious stones. But they had little interest in the affairs of a lowly lieutenant in the Zhaojun fleet.

The guard left him in an antechamber with a pair of other low-ranking naval officers. Zhaojun is large for a state in the Age of Sorrows, but the fleet is small and the Zhao noble families largely well acquainted with one another, so he recognized the two by sight: Zhao Biru Arindam, a bookish young man whose family owned a village near Lautan’s own, and Zhao Utama Giri, a small, agile fellow well-liked by his peers.

After exchanging greetings, Lautan inquired as to whether the others knew why they had been called there, a fact their orders neglected. Giri opined that they were to receive an award for their service, while Arindam dourly proposed the possibility of some sort of punishment. This speculation was interrupted when a palace majordomo confiscated their armaments—indicating that they were to be taken into the presence of an important official indeed—and instructed them to follow.

Gran_Palacio,_Bangkok,_Tailandia,_2013-08-22,_DD_57The official bowed them into a small audience chamber where two people awaited them. One was old Admiral Zhao Kuat Berani, currently a staff officer attached to the Ministry of the Heavenly Sword. The other, proudly enthroned on a dais with a diadem of white silk and lapis upon her brow? This was Crown Princess Zhao Mnemonrai Feiyen, a vice-minister of the Ministry of the Blue Robe, eldest daughter of the High Queen of Zhaojun, and heir-apparent to the throne.

After the young officers made their obeisance, Admiral Kuat informed them that they had been called to the palace for a covert assignment. “You have been selected from your peers because your superiors have commended you for both unimpeachable character and unswerving loyalty,” he said. “It is for those qualities that we call upon you today, in a matter of grave importance. If you would serve the Throne and Seal in this, you must swear by the Immaculate Dragons; by the earth and the sea; by the sun, moon and stars that you keep secret all that transpires here this day. If you cannot so swear, leave now; no penalty will fall upon you.”

The three officers knelt before Crown Princess Feiyen—who had spoken no word, leaving all matters to the admiral—and swore the oath.

“We have intelligence from the Blessed Isle,” said the admiral, “that a faction in the Scarlet Dynasty is funding rebels here in Zhaojun as part of some internecine scheme. Their efforts may affect the fleet. Your task is to keep your eyes and ears open for any signs of rebellion, to report back with everything you learn, and to be ready to act in the interest of Zhaojun no matter the cost.”

The admiral looked from one young face to the next. “Have you any questions?” he asked.

“What if you aren’t available to report to?” asked Lautan.

“After this meeting, you will receive a list of contacts in the Ministries to whom you can safely report. Any further questions?” There were none. “You are dismissed,” the admiral said, saluting them in the Zhao manner. The majordomo led them back out to the anteroom, returned their dress weapons to them, and directed them to the palace gates.

“I can’t believe we received a mission from the Crown Princess,” said Giri. “What an honor!”

“I don’t know about that,” said Arindam. “We can’t be the only ones with this assignment. We’re being split up into groups because they don’t trust us—not really.”

Giri chewed on this as they made their way out into the open air of the front gardens. “What do you think, Lautan?”

Lautan shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? We have our orders. We’ll figure out the rest when the time comes.”

Zhaojun Chronicle: Session #2.3

Here’s the third prelude of the second playtest session, covering the adventures of our soon-to-be Night Caste aristocrat-turned-smuggler. Things get a bit more interesting here, setting-wise. Rules-wise, we saw a few social influence rolls, though in at least one case we were able to gloss over the mechanics through mutual agreement, further demonstrating that the social rules can stay well out of the way when you don’t need them.


It was the dead of night. Amid warm, thick mist shot through with the buzz of insects and the croak of frogs, Zhao Yujen Merak and his man Rik—who normally served as bosun on Merak’s pleasure boat, the Dancing Water—sculled a sampan heavy with smuggled goods down the steep northern shore of the Changdao estuary.

“Hold,” said Merak. “I hear something.” The pair pulled the oars aboard and hunkered down to wait. Soon another fishing boat loomed in the mist. As it creaked alongside, they heard the slap of bare feet on the deck as a lunkish pair of peasant fishermen crossed over.

“Looks abandoned,” said one, poking at the boxes in the stern. “I guess we’re pulling in a good haul tonight!”

“I think not,” Merak replied, rising from behind the cargo heap, knife in hand. The bosun loomed behind him, his powerful arms flexing as he hefted an oar. Nonplussed, the fishermen fled, and once the frantic plash of their oars faded, Merak and Rik continued on their own route.

Then the harbor that was their destination emerged from the mist like a skull. The port once had another name, but for centuries had been known only as Gray Bone. Ancient pilings rose from the water like rotting teeth; sickly trees thrust up between paving stones like fleshless hands; lightless holes gaped in the facades of cracked and crumbling structures. Hungry ghosts crept across the old stone piers, their eyes black pits of hunger.

Mooring their boat to a dock free of the hungry dead, Merak and Rik scurried ashore, their arms laden with boxes and bags. Merak led the way toward their rendezvous, only to spot an approaching pair of cloaked figures with fiery eyes. He dragged his man down a side street and through a maze of alleys, pushing through thickets and clambering over heaps of rubble—for he had been to this part of Gray Bone more than once—to come upon their destination from another direction.

There, in the moldering ruin of a shop four hundred years old, they set down their burdens before the woman they’d come to meet, the muscular cobalt-haired Lintha captain Gajui Nei. She nodded curtly before examining the cargo, deftly sifting through packages of incense and rough ornamental stones, handing each over to her own man—an ugly silent fellow—to wrap in oiled leather and pack away in traveling cases. Only when she was done did she smile, revealing teeth filed to sharp points. “As usual, I like what I see,” she said, and handed over a sack heavy with coin. “Your share.”

Merak opened the sack and went through the contents. He nodded. “Deal’s done.”

“And now for the rest of your payment,” she said, pulling him toward a yawning hole in the wall that might once have been an interior door.

“I thought it was the rest of your payment,” he replied. She laughed. The two disappeared for a time, leaving the bosun and Nei’s man to watch for trouble while ignoring the sounds from within.

Their business concluded, Merak and Nei said their farewells. With Rik at his side carrying the sack of silver, Merak got partway back to the docks, only to find the cloaked figures they’d evaded earlier were waiting for them. “Are you Merak,” one hissed, its tone more statement than question. The face—such as could be seen beneath its hood—was pale and unwholesome.

“Uhm… yes?”

“Zhao. Yujen. Merak,” croaked the other.

The smuggler edged backward. “You have me at a disadvantage.”

“Our master seeks you,” said the first. “He would bargain for your services.”

“Oh. Well, in that case.” Merak cast his eyes about, but found no salvation at hand; even if Gajui Nei were inclined to aid him, the meeting-place was no longer in sight—and calling for aid might bring worse perils upon him. “Lead on.”

They followed the speaker deeper into the ruins of Gray Bone, its companion silently falling in behind them. After turning down a broad avenue littered with trees, its flagstones torn apart by roots and sunk deep into tree trunks, they passed through a plaza that resembled a sickly forest. At the far edge, the greenery grew thin, then cut off abruptly. The streets beyond were gloomy and misty, lined by pale upright buildings and populated by ghostly figures. As they passed the line, Merak looked back and saw only blackness. “A shadowland,” he said, shivering.

Hollow faces turned as they wound their way through the ghostly crowd to an opulent many-gabled house. The place was lit within by a pale hearth-fire that failed to diminish the city’s deathly chill. Seated upon an ornate chair, awaiting Merak and his man, was a spectral figure in dark finery. The grin splitting his unnaturally wide face revealed teeth carved with sigils in some unknown tongue. “Welcome,” he said. “I am Seven Ivories. And you are Zhao Yujen Merak.”

“Just so.” Merak rubbed his hands on his sleeves; something about Seven Ivories’ voice made him feel unclean. “Your… servants said you had a business proposition.”

“Yes. You are a renowned smuggler. Your reputation has come to me. There is an object that I wish conveyed. In exchange, I can offer you enormous wealth.”

Merak nodded. “Where is the object?”

“Here.”

“And where do you want me to bring it?”

“Here.”

“Er.” Merak gave his host a questioning glance. “Perhaps you could clarify what you need from me.”

“I need a certain item isolated for a time,” he said. “I will require it again at the end of the year. Until then, it must enter neither shadowland nor Underworld. It must come back to me on the first day of Calibration.”

“And what are you offering me for this… courier service?”

The specter grinned. “Ten talents of fine black jade. Five now, the rest upon delivery.”

Merak fought to keep his face placid, lest his jaw slacken and his eyes bulge from his sockets. “That seems… a fair price. And the object?”

Seven Ivories rose from his seat and crossed to a tall wooden cabinet. Opening it, he brought forth a box of black stone, its edged sealed with corroded copper and stamped with the image of a squid. “This,” he said. One at a time, from a shelf set into the base of a different, glass-fronted cabinet, he extracted five massive bars of jade that gleamed like midnight. Though he carried them lightly, the table creaked beneath their weight each time he set one down. “I am sure that I need not be so crass as to emphasize the consequences of failing to adhere to your end of the bargain. After all, there are some things that no man can escape. And I will be waiting.”

“Yes,” Merak said. A chill flowed up his spine at the thought of the bargain he was making—and the creature he was making it with. But as he looked at the fortune in jade before him, he knew his decision had already been made. “Five more on Calibration… I think we have a deal.”

“Very well.” The ghost rose to depart. “You may wish to remain here until sunrise, to avoid difficulties in your return to the land of the living. My hospitality is yours.”

The air grew less tense once the shade withdrew, but Seven Ivories’ burning-eyed servants still watched from the foyer. Merak rubbed his forehead. “Well, there’s a thing. Got a deck of cards?”

Rik nodded and pulled out a pack of tattered pasteboards. “Sure thing, Zhao. But we’re gonna need something else even more.”

“What’s that?”

The bosun pointed at the massive jade blocks and grinned. “A wheelbarrow.”

Zhaojun Chronicle: Session #2.2

On to our second prelude of the session, this one covering a Twilight doctor from An-Teng. We actually referenced the 3e disease rules for this one, and they were pretty clear and straightforward. There were also a lot of bumbling minor NPCs running around, which looks like it’ll be a hallmark of this game.

Moving on—


“Great healer! Come quickly!”

Harmonious Sanguine Blade took a moment to finish grinding up a dried scorpion in his mortar before rising to greet the dockworker who’d entered his clinic. His new client, a round-faced fellow named Bozhao Lucky Moon, explained that the Redwater District—a riverside area downstream from a dyeworks—was suffering from an outbreak of the bloody flux. He and his family had fled before the quarantine, and though they weren’t sick, he wanted medicine to ensure that they wouldn’t contract the illness themselves.

Blade sent Lucky Moon off to bring his family. When they arrived, a quick diagnosis confirmed that they while they weren’t in the best of health, they hadn’t contracted dysentery. To calm their fears, the Twilight fed them herbal tea that he told them was medicine. Lucky Moon offered profuse thanks, adding that while he was happy that his family was safe, he feared for his neighbors and hoped that Blade would see to their health as well. The healer penned a quick note to his apprentice regarding his absence—in case another client arrived, or his noble patron required his services, or his father or sister came looking for him—then gathered the appropriate medicines in a bag and set off.

Traditional house, Nias Island, Sumatra, Indonesia. Author: Ouicoude.

At a barricade manned by constables in the azure leathers of the Ministry of the Blue Robe—Zhaojun’s security service—Blade proclaimed his intent to enter the quarantined area and tend to the sick. He readily agreed to a warning from the lieutenant in charge that he could not then leave until the quarantine had been lifted. He then entered the Redwater District, a once-prosperous area that had fallen on hard times after the Realm conquest. While some of the old fine townhouses remained well tended, others had been converted to tenements, while further apartments and hovels had been crammed in where gardens and pavilions once stood. Many buildings were boarded shut, their residents having fled the area; the streets were largely empty; moans of pain, mingled with the stench of illness, drifted from open windows.

Blade found his way to a public laundry-house that was being used as a makeshift hospice, where dozens of groaning citizens received what little care their neighbors could provide. Presenting his bona fides to the old woman in charge, he spent several hours preparing and administering herbal remedies to those worst off, then moved on to the overcrowded tenements nearby.

Sometime after midnight, Blade’s work was disturbed by a loud, repeated banging from an adjacent building. When it became clear that the noises wouldn’t cease, he headed next door, prying away boards so he could slip inside. Sneaking to the back of the well-kept house, he watched a group of gaudily dressed street thugs break a hole in the back wall large enough for them to enter through.

As the thieves began rifling through the room for valuables, Harmonious Sanguine Blade stepped out of the shadows. “Gentlemen,” he said as they raised their hammers, “this area is under quarantine. Don’t you know that your health—your very life—is in danger?”

“Hah,” one burglar said, “Hammer Gang don’t gotta worry! Look, we got talismans!” He pointed to a beaded, feathered satchel of aromatic herbs he wore around his neck. “Got ‘em from a thaumaturge!”

“Be that as it may,” said Blade, “I am a master chirurgeon, called in to deal with the epidemic, and I assure you that even those… talismans… may not protect you. Allow me to examine you for signs of the flux. Then you may go about your business as you please.”

The healer studied each of the thugs in turn—a largely spurious exercise, given the limited vectors by which dysentery might be transmitted, which he made far more uncomfortable than was strictly necessary—while the others roamed the house in search of loot. As they finished up, Blade gave them a clear bill of health.

“Thanks, I guess,” said one of the gang members. “We’d better hurry and hit the next house.”

“Then I’ll have to accompany you,” Blade replied. “The longer you’re in Redwater, the more likely you are to be afflicted by the miasma, and I’ll need to re-examine you after each house to make sure you don’t catch the flux.”

After a brief argument, the Hammer Gang members agreed that they’d stolen enough for one night—they could bring a few bits of furniture out to make sure they were fully laden—and that maybe it wasn’t worth hanging about and risking the flux or whatever unpleasant treatment was required to treat it.

One thug remained unconvinced. “Snakefire Gang wouldn’t put up with this,” he grumbled, and not the first time.

“Say ‘Snakefire’ one more time and I break your face and throw you in the river,” said one of his companions, hefting his hammer meaningfully.

Harmonious Sanguine Blade waited a few minutes to ensure the thieves didn’t come back. He then returned to his patients, satisfied that he would suffer no further interruptions. Tomorrow he could determine the source of the outbreak. Tonight? He had work to do.

Zhaojun Chronicle: Session #2.1

Actual session writeups for my home game always run long, because I get all verbose when sharing my players’ exploits. So I’m dividing this up into multiple posts.

I expected to do a bit of combat testing this session, but two PCs handled potentially violent encounters with social influence alone. It’s pretty effective!

Anyway, onward to the adventures of Hakim Abbas, Zenith Caste mercenary shaman:


Hakim Abbas traveled westward along the road from Gem. He accompanied a caravan that had made its way through the Firepeaks and was now descending toward the lowlands. The caravaneers and a handful of fellow travelers left him alone, by and large. He was an imposing figure, this tall Southerner, with his leathers glinting with gold and gems, his panoply of weapons, and his animal companion, the lion Bahadur, whose hindquarters bore elaborate patterns of shaved fur.

His traveling companions spent the trip in conversation, debating the relative merits of this or that city, ethnic group, cuisine, or religion, but Abbas paid little attention. His nape prickled as the caravan approached the fifth rockslide of the journey. Previous collapses had been natural, but this time he felt something was wrong.

A score of archers appeared on the right-hand cliff overlooking the descending canyon path, validating the Southerner’s intuition. An arrow thudded into the woodwork of the caravan master’s wagon just inches from his head. Then a heavily armored woman—clearly the bandit leader—stood at the edge of the cliff and announced that the state of Hawkflower claimed a tariff for their passage.

Several youngsters, ranging from ten to fifteen years of age, clambered down the rocks like monkeys, then began stuffing valuables into baskets on their backs. At first they shied away from the intimidating shape of Abbas and his equally intimidating lion. Then two girls approached and demanded that the Southerner throw down his valuables. With a few brief words, he assured them that any attempt to confiscate his wealth would go worse for them. The lion Bahadur spoke in a human voice to agree with his master’s assessment, a display the girls found equally convincing.

One of the girls replied, in a low voice, that their leader would beat them if they did not bring back enough loot. She pulled back her sleeve to reveal bruises that might or might not have arisen from such an incident. Abbas proved equally unmoved by this entreaty.

The bandit leader, irritated by her girls’ failure to perform such a simple task as relieving a traveler of his ornaments, advised Abbas that failure to comply might result in undesirable perforation of his epidermis. The Southerner, for his part, brought forth his flamepiece and offered to demonstrate its use. The bandit leader replied that the distance between them exceeded the weapon’s range, and indeed that she could withdraw before the flames could reach her, but her arguments were half-hearted at best.

With a word from their commander, the bandit youths scrambled back up the cliff face with their take. The bandit leader acknowledged that she would permit Abbas to continue without the usual tariff, but she informed the caravan master that the Southerner was sufficiently unwelcome that any caravan that escorted him back along that route would face extermination.

That evening, as the caravan made camp in a broad open space pocked with the scorch marks of a hundred campfires, Abbas was approached by Bai Gong Wen, a merchant of the seafaring Baihu people. The man had overheard Bahadur’s use of mortal speech, and he offered Abbas vast sums to purchase such a rarity. The Southerner made it quite clear that the lion was his friend and companion, not chattel to be bought and sold. After Bai Gong Wen turned in for the night, Abbas observed that others who wished to procure a talking lion might not take kindly to a declined offer or balk at gaining ownership through underhanded means. He advised Bahadur to speak in public only when absolutely necessary.

A few days later, the caravan reached Footprint, a small trading city in the southwest of Zhaojun. After paying a sizable fee to enter the city, Abbas paid an urchin to lead him through the maze of bazaars, warehouses, mercantile compounds, and brothels to a reputable caravanserai. After procuring a room from the gregarious proprietor—“Two rooms or one? I’m not one to judge!”—Abbas headed out to gather information and inebriation at a local teahouse.

By coincidence, Abbas encountered one of his many mercenary contacts, a veteran of the Tattered Prince Company named Yara of Longcliff. The two settled in to drink and reminisce. After asking if Abbas had any ongoing assignmnts, Yara said he was recruiting as part of a minor contract he’d obtained from the Zhao government. Extra guards were needed for the annual procession of the Golden Seal of Zhao, a relic that was carried each year from the capital city to the temple-city of Holy Fire and back. Would Abbas be interested? The Solar thought this a fine idea, and after sealing the deal with a handshake, they settled in for an evening of revelry.

Zhaojun Chronicle: Session #1

In the first Zhaojun playtest session, we followed Realm talonlord Coravan Calan during his reassignment to the Southwest. He was effectively in political exile for attempting to report corruption among his superiors, and had been shipped off to the edge of the world for his pains.

Calan took ship to An-Teng, thence down the coast through the more lightly populated regions around the Silent Crescent, and on to the Baihu islands. At the mouth of the Meiyu Sea, his ship stopped for resupply at the Huang Hei naval depot. Seeking meaning in the congested bustle of troops around the docks, his inquiries among the soldiers revealed only that the Imperial legion garrisoned there had been sent south.

Arriving at Goldenseal, Calan turned his baggage over to his aging valet Iridescent Quill and his squire Nabaro Ren, and made his way to the city’s Realm garrison. He reported to the garrison’s second in command, Bal Gevanin, in her well-appointed quarters. A rather easygoing woman for her rank, Gevanin explained that the Huang Hei legion had headed south to deal with increased barbarian incursions from the Rao tribes, but that Calan would remain in Goldenseal to help see to its defense. He was deeply disappointed to learn that he would be assigned to lead auxiliary troops—a mix of provincials and mercenaries—rather than Realm soldiers

At his new quarters in the garrison, Calan learned from a querulous Quill that Ren had gone missing—something which he had done often on the journey down, though on board ship it was of little consequence as the boy couldn’t go far. Now, though, Calan and Quill headed out into the plaza outside the garrison gates to track Ren down.

They watched Ren as he talked to merchants and peered into shops, looking for someone or something. Night had fallen when a conversation with a peddler incited the boy to bolt down a side street. Quill, an older man, lacked the stamina to pursue, so Calan followed alone. After further queries of passers-by, Ren tracked his quarry to a narrow triangular courtyard. The young woman he met there, slurping noodles from a cart, was familiar to Calan. Indeed, it was a relative of his: Coradan Teva, his brother’s daughter, who had run away from home—and her arranged marriage to a boy she loathed—to follow the uncle she idolized.

Calan spent several minutes firing angry words at the pair—at Teva for abdicating her responsibilities, and at Ren for enabling the girl’s behavior and failing to report it to his mentor. Only after the hairs began to prickle on the back of his neck did Calan realize that all around them, passers-by had withdrawn down alleyways and residents had closed their doors and windows. The noodle-seller slammed his shutters closed as a dozen thuggish fellows closed in on the three Realmfolk.

The gang and its leader, Silver Shao, confronted the three with a jovial demeanor that provided a flimsy veil for insults and threats. When their japes veered toward the toothsomeness and potential price of the two youths, Calan threatened Shao with brutal, bloody death if he didn’t call off his men. We pulled the social influence system out of the box for this one, and Calan’s dead-eyed glare was very convincing. Only the gang leader’s Intimacy toward maintaining face in front of his gang allowed him to shrug it off.

The ensuing fight scene, with Calan trying to take out his opponents quickly so he could catch up to the thugs pursuing Ren and Teva, went a lot slower than expected. We’d all playtested the system before, but that was months ago; none of us remembered the rules as well as we’d thought, so we had to keep riffling through the playtest packets to remember how things worked. In addition, Calan’s player hadn’t pre-calculated and written down his combat scores on his sheet, so he kept adding up the numbers every single time he made a roll or was attacked. We’re making sure to prep all those numbers in advance for next session, so things will go much faster. (Holden has assured me that the final character sheet will include spaces to record commonly used pools and values, including—but not limited to—such combat scores.)

I had Calan Exalt halfway through the combat. Before Exalting, he was doing well against a small gang of crummy thugs and a boss whose combat skills were nearly a match for his own, but they successfully prevented him from getting away to help the kids, and it looked like he would eventually get ground down if he couldn’t scatter the battle group. However, once Calan started burning Essence on Charms, he swiftly gained the upper hand, carving a nasty gash across Silver Shao’s face and sending the gang packing.

Once Calan was free to chase after his family, taking down the remaining thugs was trivial. Persuading Ren not to turn him in as Anathema was harder, but with some effort Calan convinced the boy to keep his secret and return quietly to the garrison… once Calan’s anima faded, at any rate. Seeing onlookers gathering at the far end of the alley, Calan pulled his cloak lower over his forehead and sought cover in an abandoned building until he could pass as a mortal.

We should have used the social influence rules to determine whether Calan could convince Ren and Teva to come with him, but it was really late and we were dead tired, and frankly I was so zoned out at that point that I forgot that the social rules were an option—our group is used to handling social stuff through pure roleplay. We’ll give the social mechanics more of a workout next time!

Exalted 3e Playtest: The Zhaojun Chronicle

As a writer for Exalted Third Edition, I get to playtest the rules and setting before anybody else. I can’t share major system or setting details with readers; these things need to stay under wraps, either until the developers choose to spoil them or until the book is released. But I can talk a bit about my upcoming Exalted chronicle, which I’m running in 3e’s setting with the playtest rules.

The game will begin in Zhaojun, a satrapy at the far southwestern fringe of Realm influence. A complex web of political relationships—involving characters ranging from satraps, princes, spirits, and Guild factors to merchants, bandit chieftains, philosophers and charlatans—should give social characters lots of fodder. Meanwhile, the more combat-oriented characters have any number of potential adversaries to deal with, whether it’s urban clashes with soldiers, assassins, and thugs, or hinterland adventures against pirates, beastmen, or whatever bizarre monsters lurk in the wild places of the Age of Sorrows.

Character creation has given us a perfect circle of Solars:

Coravan Calan (Dawn): A career military officer from a patrician family in the northern Blessed Isle. Calan dutifully reported corruption among the officer corps to his superiors, only to find himself reassigned to the farthest edge of the empire for his pains. He has yet to Exalt. Calan’s player has an inclination toward highly moral characters.
Hakim Abbas (Zenith): Formerly the shaman of the Emerald Company, a well-respected Southern mercenary outfit headquartered in Gem, he has parted ways with them after his Exaltation. His only companion on the road to Zhaojun is Baladur, his talking lion. Abbas’s player is the most mechanically-minded in the group.
Harmonious Sanguine Blade (Twilight): Born to a Tengese mercantile family decimated by plague, he dedicated himself to the apothecary and chirurgical arts. After his Exaltation, he fell in with the Cult of the Illuminated, which encouraged him to further his medical studies in Zhaojun. Blade’s player is more interested in scheming than mechanics.
Zhou Yujen Merak (Night): Born into Zhaojun’s aristocracy, he lost everything when his elders were executed for treason and his family stripped of wealth and property. Now he’s a smuggler and a rebel, who aims to see Zhaojun’s royal house overthrown and the Realm ousted. Merak’s player enjoys complex, dramatic social situations.
Zhou Suria Lautan (Eclipse): A career officer in the Zhaojun navy, born of minor landed gentry. Though he deems himself loyal, his cousin Merak is whispering in his ear of how their people would be better off under a new regime. The two have commandeered a vessel to aid the incipient rebellion. This is my first game with Lautan’s player.

We’ll have our first full session next week. Until then, enjoy this photo of our game resources and playtest material!

Exalted 3e map and playtest packets