Thursday, March 10, 2016

Godbound Session 0: The Pillars of Heaven

I've been reading the Godbound beta all week and was inspired by it. I never played Exalted, which I've heard many people compare it to, but it was scratching an itch I didn't know I had.

My players had never even heard of the game before. Not that I asked them, but it's not exactly the kind of thing they follow on a regular basis, so I was pretty sure they hadn't heard of it.

I decided to run it without telling them what it was, what it was about, or how it worked. I'm lucky because my group trusts me to run a fun game, even though lately our 5E sessions have been falling a little flat.
So I cut, pasted, and emailed a bunch of background info about the history of the setting and the nations, the magical traditions, etc. I carefully removed all references to Godbound in the material I sent them because I didn't want to tip them off to even the name of the game.

I decided to start them off as mortals and to have them become Godbound during the first game session. They wouldn't make complete characters, but I didn't let them know that because I whipped up special versions of the character sheets that didn't include any references to anything a mortal didn't have.
They did know that it was a mystery of a game. I said it would all be clear at the end of the first session; I didn't trouble them with the rules, but told them it was "basically old school D&D-ish," except everyone's a human and don't worry about picking a class.

I made them answer three questions before game night:

  • What is your character's origin?
  • How does your character make their way in the world?
  • What is a relationship or organization you are involved in?

These are the three facts that a player chooses during character creation, so I insisted they answer each question in no more than two sentences. They asked for clarification. "What can I be?" I told them they could be anything from a powerless peasant through they mightiest of warriors or archmage and not to worry about game balance since it will all make sense later.

I also told them that their characters didn't need to know each other and we'd start the game in the Kasirutan Archipelago, an area similar to Malaysia, and filled with merchants and pirates.
I only had one thing in mind at the moment. An open air shrine with four pillars, that would be called the Pillars of Heaven. When the pillars get destroyed, the characters will awaken as Godbound.

Surprisingly, they didn't grab for the most powerful options they could imagine. I asked them during the session before the big reveal why not and one player told me "I need something to strive for. If I start out at the end of a grand career what would I have to look forward to?"

My perverse GM side was pleased, but I couldn't show it.

We had four characters. I helped steer them a bit toward refining their concepts in the days before them game, but they came up with the following basic concepts:

  • Andras Mesvaros, runaway adept of the Black Acadamies of the Raktine Confederacy, traveler and rapscallion.
  • Svednova Varga, peasant of the Raktine Confederacy and runaway Curse Eater. (Two runaways from Raktine? Weird.) She wanted to be working with pirates.
  • Ji of the Nine Stanzas, beast tamer and healer from The Howlers. (A cross between a romanticized version of the Celts or Picts, and Native Americans.) She wanted to have a tiger cub for a pet.
  • Ivar Haraldsen, exiled monster hunter of the Ulstang Skerries. (Vikings.) He had been exiled for getting too close to his Witch Queen's daughter. His love used her influence to have him sold into slavery (instead of being killed and reanimated as an undead Druagr), then to be rescued while at sea.

Okay, we rolled attributes and I stepped them through the basics that resulted in mortals. Three of the four had some spells. They got some gear. We were ready to play.

I started off in a flashback.

"Ivar, you are slowly coming to consciousness. You are bound in chains, in the cramped deck of a slave ship. A brand on your shoulder marks you as a slave. Thora, your love, bargained for this fate for you instead of eternal undeath."

"You hear fighting on the deck. It sounds like... women are fighting the crew! They speak a language you don't recognize."

"Svednova, the pirate captain Azura tells you to check on the slaves. You are going to sell them at the nearest slave port. When you walk down in the hold, you recognize the one with the mark you were told look for. There's a reward of 500 gold to take him back to your home port of Batu Maun."

I let them role play their meeting and we faded to black on the scene.

"Ji, you tracked the beast, a giant black sabretooth, to a cursed ruin. Surprisingly, it walks up the steps between crumbling towers and enters." Ji followed. Inside there was something disturbingly unnatural... an arched portal lead to a seemingly endless stone bridge suspended in blackness.

She quietly followed the beast. Five minutes within, the door behind her shut, leaving her in total darkness. She had wandered on to a Night Road, but the player didn't know what that was.

"You hear some shuffling. You get the sense that something is close." She stood still. "You can hear the beast breathing. Do you want to light a torch?" Foolishly, she decided to face it in darkness so as to not give away her position.

"It's close enough that you can smell its breath now." She gingerly took a step back. I rolled for the beast to notice. "You hear the draw of steel. As the blades are pulled free, they illuminate the path. The enemy before you is fifteen feet tall with a heavy carapace and four arms. It swings for you but you jump out of the way."
Since this was a prequel to the game I didn't worry about running proper combat. My players are used to this sort of thing. We did roll some dice, but we were just looking for high numbers or low numbers and then I narrated the results.

"You see the black sabretooth! It has leaped down to a wide bridge below." Ji jumped as well. She landed and barely managed to keep from slipping over the side to infinite darkness. The angry warrior-thing which I didn't bother statting up jumped too, but he slipped and when he did he grabbed his own bridge. It began to crumble. It collapsed on itself and the way she came would never be an option again.

She lit a torch and looked the way the sabretooth had run. "Behind you, you hear some whimpering." A grey cub was trapped in some rubble from the other bridge. Ji calmed it then sang a song of healing to using both of her spells.

When the cub healed, it bounded down the path but stopped to call to her. It went the opposite way the black sabretooth had gone. Ji followed the cub and it lead her to a cave, beyond which there was sunlight.
"Looking up the hill, you see the village you later come to know as Batu Muan." Fade to black on the scene.
"Andras, why did you come to this bar in this remote little fishing village, Batu Muan?" This player hadn't really given me anything to work with other than being a wanderer. "You reach into your pocket and feel the money again. After this job your debt will be paid in full. You are to pay the reward for sparing a man's life, and to deliver a message."

I arranged for all of the characters to be together in the bar. They played out meeting and warily checked each other out. Yeah, we're starting out by having the heroes meet at the tavern.

Andras the wanderer delivered the message to Ivar. His love would be waiting for him. Come on the night of her nineteenth birthday and she would be ready to escape with him.

Andras and Svednova headed to the docks to deliver the fee to Azura the pirate. The other two stayed at the bar bonding over the little gray tiger cub.

At this point in the game we were playing. There were some interactions with minor NPCs. When the characters did anything that needed a roll of the dice, which wasn't often yet, we rolled. I had removed them fully from prequel-style narrative mode and we were playing in earnest.

When I designed the adventure for the session, I did it by generating a court, in this case a community court. A court in Godbound is a group of people who control some institution - the village of Batu Muan here. Godbound includes some charts to help the GM create drama through several types of courts, ruins, and general challenges.

I didn't really roll in this case. I had picked things from the charts that sparked my interest and interpreted some of the results creatively which is encouraged. You're not bound to the charts - they're there as an aid, not a straitjacket.

I knew I wanted the shrine, The Pillars of Heaven. I named the local shaman, the leader of the town, several minor NPCs (we had several minor but enjoyable interactions with them that I'm leaving out), the consequences of the court being destroyed (nothing in this case), and a conflict. "A new faith is preaching to locals."

I came up with a foreign troublemaker, Clarity Student, the Atheocratic priest of True Reason who knew something about the pillars and was here to stop it. I gave him a handful of bodyguards as well.
I added one other idea to the mix. The locals venerated their ancestors at the altar, but also a local entity known as Ora Nagatu. The players would cross paths on the day of the yearly service to honor Ora Nagatu.
I knew that I needed things to turn bad, because I wanted to accomplish a few related goals:
Have the characters be hopeless outmatched by the priest.

Have the characters be hopelessly outmatched by an even greater threat, Ora Nagatu.
When things get dark enough, ascend the characters, break to finish character generation for real, then let them come back and kick ass. Zero to hero in the span of a single battle.

The advice in the Godbound RPG does not approve of any heavy-handed GM shenanigans where you railroad or set up a narrow situation that seems scripted in resolution. I would tread lightly and try to rework where I wanted to go during play, but I justified some tinkering on the plot in advance because this session was really meant as "session 0" character creation, origin story, and hopefully cool reveal for the players when they learn what the nature of the game really is.

In the end, my players were very happy with the session. Here's how the rest played out:
The two PCs at the dock heard a loud ruckus coming from up the hill. The characters at the tavern were closer, so they arrived on the scene first.

The shrine-keeper and the Atheocrat were in a heated philosophical debate. The PCs decided to intervene and talked the priest of True Reason into coming to the tavern to reduce friction.

Once there, they had a long conversation where they learned that he was an outright ass. He was a rabid fanatic; the atheocrats are against religion. (To be fair, the world of Arcem has seen too many holy wars.)
As the sun started to set, the village outside erupted in song. The players emerged to see the start of the yearly offering to Ora Nagatu. The town leader, the datuk laid the offering at the feet of the shaman.
Runes on the Pillars of heaven began to light up in blue radiance, one by one they ascended higher and higher as the song grew more exultant.

One of my players asked what the Atheocrat priest of True Reason was doing.

"It looks like he is chanting a spell."

Honestly, I don't know exactly what kind of spell he was using. There are two kinds of magic in the game though, low magic and high magic. Only the greatest spellcasters can use the highest magic, and that's what this was. He was interfering with the ritual. Yes, the Atheocratic god-hating priest of True Reason would be witness to the birth of four new godbound...

The runes suddenly turned red and the singing stopped in gasps. The datuk asked the shaman what this meant because it had never happened before.

Several PCs started stealthily moving for position, expecting a fight.

A wooden building erupted in a shower of splinters.

The priest pointed and shouted "Ora Nagatu is angry! He is here! He is here!"

Everyone started running.

Ora Nagatu was a thirty foot tall monkey "god." Actually, he wasn't a god at all, just a magical spirit. There are some generic stat blocks in Godbound and some guidelines to help you design your own beasts, spirits, monsters, etc. Ora Nagatu wasn't exactly a monkey either. He had long orange-red fur and his arms were disproportionately long. Orangutan.

Ora Ganatu... the Orangutan. My players didn't even groan. They said, "How did we not see that coming!?"

I was pleased that they thought it was cool though.

Ora Ganatu attacked the village.

Another thing that Godbound helps you stat out is a mob of similar beings that fight as a unit, even if disorganized. So instead of fighting a bunch of individual villagers, he attacked the villager mob I had designed, and I described the carnage. In the first round he took down about a third of the village.

The PCs were dumbfounded and felt outclassed in the extreme already. Good. One fought with the guards (without results) and a few PCs tried to use magic to mess with the priest but his magical defenses protected him. JI ran out to face Ora Ganatu and was smacked down in a single blow. (0 HP) I told her she was dying, lying in the mud.

Things weren't going exactly the way that the Atheocratic priest of True Reason intended. He did mean to interrupt the ritual, but he thought there'd be time to shut down the pillars before Ora Nagatu arrived. He was wrong.

The priest attacked Ora Nagatu with powerful magical bolts of force. He missed and blasted the pillars instead. I rolled dice, but I was choosing these results essentially because we were still telling the origin story. Very soon I would play the game as it really is meant to be played, but that would be after the PCs were Godborn. The dice were coming out close enough and at this point too many things were unknown by my players to understand the details of combat to notice my fudging.

The pillars exploded and each PC looked up quickly to see a flash of light...

I had a little speech ready at this point that went something like this:

"You know in an instant that you are something more than you have ever been. You can feel the Words of Creation burning in your souls and you see the world more fully than you ever have before. You feel... larger than you were even though little has visibly changed about your bodies. You are Godbound."

My players were silent, but I could see that they were clearly digging it.

"This game is called Godbound. You are literally gods, at least demigods. Everything you have made up about your characters is what they were before the game we're going to play. Now we're going to finish making up your godling characters."

I passed out the real character sheets and some printed out pages from the game. "You will each choose three Words that grant your divine abilities. After that you will select gifts from those powers..."

It took about an hour to finish making their characters from that point. It's not hard to make a character, but when it's dumped on you all at once out of the blue there's a small level of shock involved.

I didn't know that I could necessarily pull it off, but I did surprise the heck out of them and they were delighted and excited.

I explained that their choices aren't unique to them, two or more could choose the same Words and or gifts, and they made the following choices:

  • Andras Mesvaros selected the words Alacrity, Journeying, and Sword.
  • Svednova Varga selected the words Death, Luck, and Night.
  • Ji of the Nine Stanzas selected the words Beasts, Bow, and Health.
  • Ivar Haraldsen selected the words Endurance, Might and Passion.

I explained some further rules like the Fray Die mechanic, how lesser foes and worthy foes work, etc. and we returned to the scenario.

"The pillars exploded and you each had your revelations. You look up at the carnage and you know that you can make a difference."

Svednova hid half the village in darkness, keeping the rampaging Ora Nagatu from killing many of the fleeing villagers. Ivar lifted a ten ton block of stone from a child with a crushed leg, while Andras quickly swept in to grab the child before the raging Ora Nagatu could strike him.

Ji of the Nine Stanzas stood before the beast and talked to it in ape language. She explained that everything was the fault of the priest of True Reason.

The ape boiled. It focused all of its energy on the Atheocrat. Clarity Student died two rounds later then Ora Nagatu turned around, still angry.

Ji used her magic to try to calm him. Even though Ora Nagatu was a spirit, I ruled that he was also a magical beast. Ji's magic can automatically charm regular beasts, but magical beasts get a saving throw.

A one was rolled.

The mighty Ora Nagatu bent low, putting his forehead to the ground. "Ora Nagatu, greatest beast of the jungle bows to you, beastlord." And with that, he turned around and walked into the jungle.

I asked the players what they plan to do next week, assigned experience point and dominion point awards, and my players were excited for this game.

It was a good session 0.

1 comment:

  1. That was a cool origin story and some sly pro GM'ing there.