Original SA post
Speaking of reviews, it's time to begin
Ironclaw: Squaring the Circle
I'm pretty convinced reviewing this game is cursed. There have been multiple attempts and they've all been abandoned so far. But this game deserves a full review. So join me on a journey of excellent game mechanics, an interesting setting, and some baffling, inexplicably weird shit that breaks tone entirely (I.E. the reason I won't be bothering with art. The Species Card art is fantastic, but the weird stylized anime stuff and reused stuff from 1st edition is painful). First, though, I'd like to talk about why I want to review this game.
I reviewed Albedo: Platinum Catalyst because Sanguine Entertainment is one of the best crunchy designers I know of. Ironclaw is no different, but the biggest difference is Ironclaw is Sanguine's own world and setting rather than an adaptation. Ironclaw 1e was their first ever game, and it already showed some inventive and interesting mechanics. In Ironclaw, rather than rolling against a set TN, you rolled a dice pool and compared your highest number against the highest result from an enemy dicepool (either determined by the difficulty of the task or your enemy's skill if you were opposing someone) and it worked quite well as a resolution mechanic. It had some serious flaws, though; a starting PC could have a pretty massive die pool already and it was only going to get bigger, critical successes became vanishingly rare against skilled opposition since they required you to beat an enemy result by 5 (with d12s being the highest die), bonuses and penalties were very clunky and basically required a chart to resolve quickly. I liked Ironclaw 1e, but it was a game too clunky to run with a truly large group. At the same time, the dicepool system and floating modifiers you picked in combat (you could choose to hit first, focus for a later bonus or guaranteed critical, get a bonus to hit, or get a bonus to damage) and the Overwhelm system for criticals, as well as the way it was hard to just outright die and much more likely you'd be 'defeated', made running duels and fights in the original system a lot of fun when it worked. The dicepool system also gave a lot of flexibility in character design and as a concept, worked well out of combat, too. It just needed a few more passes.
Ironclaw 2e is Ironclaw with years of lessons learned (including lessons and refinements tested in Albedo) and it's a much tighter, easier to run game. I want to review this game because 2e is a very real effort to improve the core design and resolution mechanics of 1e, a solid look at what worked and what didn't that resulted in an improved version of an already promising game. I also want to review it because the actual setting is actually really cool; it's a gritty, low-fantasy game about social struggle and the uncomfortable distinctions of class that are being questioned as the influence of the printing press and the gun come into the world. And yet it's one where your PCs absolutely do not start out as shitfarmers or ineffectual. You're still playing relatively grounded people (with a lot of room to advance) but it's both possible and encouraged your hero will begin the game as someone so talented that noble patrons cannot overlook them because of low birth; you are meant to represent the upwardly mobile and the people who don't quite fit into the stratified feudal society of Calabria.
Next Time: Basic Mechanics and how to make a PC!
Original SA post
Ironclaw: Squaring the Circle
One of the cardinal sins most RPGs commit is that they describe PC creation and what a roleplaying game is before they actually describe the dice/resolution system. Ironclaw commits this sin and also makes a pretty bad first impression by putting stuff like this front and center in the intro:
Doesn't that just grab you and say 'Man, this looks like an interesting, gritty low-fantasy game of kingmakers and social mobility'? It doesn't? It looks like the kind of shit you'd see in that dumb furry Libertopia game. This isn't a good way to sell the game, and it's especially painful because once you get to the species section you get amazing stuff like this:
Oh, right, pi-rat. I get it.
This link contains basically all the good art from IC and is worth checking out. I won't be posting any of the other stuff except to occasionally make fun of Bishonen Foxboy)
Not sure why that isn't the headliner, but anyway. The game has a particularly good 'what is a roleplaying game' section where they talk about three different kinds: One for people who have never played a TTRPG before, explaining some of the conventions of the genre, one for people who have played TTRPGs but never played Ironclaw, and then a short section for people who played 1e about the major changes in the system. This is a good idea and they get their point across pretty well, but god help me if we haven't all read a million 'what is an RPG' sections as is.
Now, they then get into 'how to build your PC' but they do it before describing the actual resolution system. Games have got to stop doing this, so I'm going to get into the basic resolution system before I describe PC creation, myself.
IC's system is a dicepool system. You put together a pool of all your applicable dice (bonus dice from special abilities called Gifts, bonus dice from situational modifiers, base stat dice, base skill dice, additional base stat dice if your Career or Species boosts the skill) and then roll against a target number. The target number is either 3 (for simple tasks or tasks where how many successes you get matter more than anything else, like Soaking damage) or an opposing dicepool. Usually, the opposing dicepool is the dicepool of the other character you're trying to hit, trick, sneak past, etc. If there's no other person involved, it'll just be determined by how hard the task is. You do not add the dice together; you compare your dice to their single highest showing number and however many exceed it is how many degrees of success you make. If all of your dice show a 1, you botch; botching is (usually) very rare providing you have any kind of training at a task but it's always really, really bad.
Now we can make sense of PC creation. You have 6 stats: Mind, Body, Will, Speed, Species, and Career. Species and Career are sort of extra dice that get included with the things you're particularly well trained with or represent natural extra aptitude from your race. For instance, foxes are really good at sneaking and lions are really good at showing off, so a Fox would add his species die to any Stealth tests and a Lion would add it to Presence (the skill for making a big impression). Career is something you choose, and like Species, it has about 3 skills it gets added to (so say, a Soldier would buff his ranged, melee, and tactics skills with his Career die) and represents what your primary job has trained you to do. Mind is for persuasive argument, perception, and mental acuity, Speed is grace and agility, Body is endurance and strength, and Will is your mental endurance and willpower. You assign 2 d8 sized dice, 3 d6s, and 1 d4 to these stats to begin with; d6 is the 'average' for a competent person. Most of the foes you'll face in game who aren't of much note will top out at d6 dice, and running the math means no matter how many of those they have a d8 has a 25% chance to just beat them outright. PCs are meant to be special people of great talent and ability; even if you don't spend anything on being better at your base stats you'll still be above average for the most part.
Next, you choose a species and career. The species are very, very numerous, but they all function the same, mechanically. You get 3 skills that get to use your Species die, some natural weapons (which also get to add Species die to their attacks), some stuff about preferred diet and time of day, and then 3 Gifts. Gifts are one of the building blocks of character advancement; they represent special abilities (like being able to sprint hard to an enemy and then make an attack for Charging Strike), passive buffs (like getting to add a d8 to all melee/throwing attacks for having the Gift of Strength), magic spells, or social and skill edges. They can also outright increase a stat; a fair number of Species have Increased Trait (Speed/Body) as a Gift. Similarly, your career gives you 3 more set gifts and 3 Career skills. After that, you may pick 3 Gifts of your own from the giant, kinda poorly organized list later on in the book. After that, you get 13 Skill Marks. Each point put in a Skill increases its die size by 1 (From 0, to d4, to d6, to d8, to d10, to d12, and then to d12+d4, etc) and you may put up to a d8 in an individual skill during creation. Note there are no non-proficient penalties; skills represent additional learning on top of natural aptitude, species edges, and career training. Someone with a d12 Body but no points in melee might be totally untrained but still strong enough to fake it in a fight, BUT the Botch rule is designed to make it so that their lack of training means they risk serious failure. As the game points out, someone rolling d12 has a 1-12 chance of Botching, but someone with d4+d12 has a 1-48; even the slightest basic training could make that hulking guy way less likely to screw up catastrophically.
I like the character creation system a lot, especially as you may take a Gift to let you use any stat for hand to hand combat (Will, Speed, or Mind) instead of Body. It's been very easy to make a wide variety of characters who arrive at being exceptional or badass from a lot of different routes. It also avoids making Speed the god-stat, which was a serious problem in IC1e (IC1e used Speed for all to-hit rolls and all defense rolls, with Body only contributing to Soak and Damage, which means speed was just more important). We'll get into how they solved that problem when we get to combat. Would people like more detail on the Gifts, Species, and Skills, or to see an example PC?
Original SA post
Ironclaw: Squaring the Circle
Alright, so thread ideas were for a constable, a charlatan, and a harpoon throwing Otter sea captain. Let's show off character creation and see how they end up looking, plus cover a few things I missed.
Constable Judy will be a Constable of Triskellian, the Constantinople/Rome hybrid ruled by Italian foxes that forms one of the centers of the setting. This means she'll be an urban fox of lower class background: That makes her a red fox (grey foxes are inbred Machiavellian nobles) which gives Keen Ears, Danger Sense, and Night Vision and gets added to Stealth, Digging, and Jumping. Danger Sense lets us demonstrate how good situational Gifts are: She gets a +d12 to all dice pools for avoiding surprise and the like, as well as a +d12 to Initiative checks because she's always ready to go. Keen Ears is a little odder, letting her negate the first highest showing die an enemy gets when they try to sneak quietly past her. Night Vision lets her see in dim light just fine. All good things for a constable. Being an urban fox from a well-to-do place, she'll put her d4 stat in Fox; the leaping about and scrabbling isn't really for her. She'll take a d8 in her Body and Mind; she's strong and very perceptive/clever, necessary to be an imposing soldier and to be handy with a sword or club if trouble gets out of hand. That leaves her with a d6 in Will, Speed, and Career; she's an average soldier, not especially experienced, but still competent on her feet and no pushover. On that note, she'll take the Career of Soldier. This gives her her Career die with Ranged Combat (any non-thrown ranged weapon), Melee Combat (any melee attack that isn't unarmed) and Tactics (a skill that gets included whenever you team up with an ally against the same foe, good for fighting in rank). She also gets the Gift of Resolve (Letting her use her Will to avoid damage as well as her Body and armor), Veteran (Lets her get better bonuses for spending an action to aim or guard), and Hiking (+d12 to all matters of long distance travel). She then gets 13 skill marks, and puts 3 in Observation for a d8 Skill, 3 in Melee for a d8, 2 in Presence to be able to scare the piss out of perpetrators without killing them or show off, then puts 1 in Brawling for insurance, 1 in Dodge to avoid ranged attacks, 1 in Negotiation for dealing with tough problems or angry superior officers, and 1 in Searching for sweeping scenes. Her 3 free Gifts will go into raising her Will so her presence and defense is better, gaining Local Knowledge (Triskellian) (+1d12 to checks about knowing her city), and Legal Authority (Triskellian) to represent she can arrest people and throw her badge around, also giving her another d12 with other Constables. Judy is a persuasive woman and talented fighter who has a lot of social standing and local cachet on her beat. She also gets a longbow, a sword, a shield, and some light armor for being a Soldier.
Mercurio the Rat will be one of Judy's persistent problems, an inveterate scofflaw who works the docks and shadier side of Triskellian. As a rat, he's a born survivor; he gets the Gift of Survival (+d12 to forage and survive in rough conditions), Contortionist (He can Retreat without actually giving up position, something that'll become important when we explain combat), and he shares Judy's Keen Ears. His Rat die also gets added to Digging, Stealth, and Swimming. Being a stealthy sort used to surviving on the streets, he has a d8 Career and Speed, a d6 Species, Will, and Mind, and a d4 Body. Mercurio is an actual Charlatan, this being a Career option, giving him his Career die with Presence, Negotiation, and Deceit. He also gets the gift of Streetwise (+d12 to matters of the criminal underworld), Forgery (+d12 when trying to make imitations or forge documents), and Disguise (+d12 to blend in a crowd or impersonate others). The little bastard could be pretty much anywhere at any time. He'll take 3 ranks in Deceit, 3 in Presence to make up for his low Will, and 3 in Negotiation to mark he's a genuine master of his chosen craft, then fill out with 2 in Melee combat (never know when you'll need your knife), and 2 in Stealth. He'll also take the gift of Sneaky Fighter (+2d8 to attack with knives and other concealable, small weapons), Bribery (+d12 to bribe officials), and Combat Grace (Can use Speed instead of Body to fight). Mercurio is able with a dagger in the dark but he primarily relies on his social skills and abilities as a career criminal and liar to get what he wants. What he wants is money and personal security. Maybe power, but that comes after survival. He also gets a dagger, shortsword, some light armor, and plenty of makeup and disguise clothes as trappings for his career. Notice how many situational d12s he gets when plying his trade, as well as his very strong base abilities with social and persuasive skills.
Captain Otto Brandt has a problem and that problem is that there are whales that haven't been harpooned. As an otter, Otto is a master of the seas and rivers; he gets his Otter die to Dodge, Swimming, and Stealth. He also gets the Gift of Fast Swimming (he can move through wet terrain quickly and easily, in and out of combat, and when he tries to swim in combat it's a normal movement action instead of requiring anything special), Deep Diving (He can use his entire Swimming skill instead of just his Body die to avoid drowning, and holds his breath 10x as long as a normal character), and Contortionist (Same as Mercurio). Being a badass who throws giant spikes at whales, he will take d8 in Body and Speed both (Throwing weapons use both stats!), d6 in Career, Species, and Will, and a d4 in Mind. He does not need fancy theories about how to harpoon a fucking whale. He'll have the Career of Sailer, giving him Carousing (+d12 to hold liquor or handle poison), Sailing (+d12 to anything involving botes), and Team Player (When he Assists someone, they get +d12 instead of +d8). He'll also get to include Sailor with Vehicles (Botes, and really anything else, so he's actually set up for swashbuckling coach chases or barrel rides), Swimming, and Weather Sense. He'll put 3 for d8 in Vehicles to be a master of boats, 2 for d8 in Throwing to toss his deadly harpoon with great skill, 2 for d6 in Dodging, 3 for d8 in Leadership to inspire his men, and 2 in Brawling to punch people in the face during shore brawls. He'll take the Gift of Strength (+d8 to melee and throwing attacks, but not defenses, can carry more stuff) to be lean and strong, Improves Strength (Improves the base bonus to +d12), and Brawling Fighter (can parry and generally use fists or claws with no penalty relative to melee weapons). Otto is set up entirely to be a badass and a master of sailing, and he's able to hold his own in a brawl as one of the strongest men on his crew. For comparison's sake for how good he is at harpooning a fool: The average enemy will have 2d6 defense, 2d6+d8 if Guarding, 2d6+d12 if Guarding and a Veteran. Otto's punch is already d12+d8+d6 (or d12+d8+2d6 for his actual claws, since he includes Species with those) and his throw is d12+3d8. The average soldier ain't got nothing on a drunken, angry otter whaler.
Next Time: More on how Gifts and Skills work!
Gifts and Skills
Original SA post
Ironclaw: Squaring the Circle!
Alright, today we'll be covering Gifts and Skills in more detail. Skills are simple; they're a separate, narrow category of expertise that gets added on top of your general dicepool. A character can actually be excellent at using a skill without any Marks in the actual skill; for instance in the game I'm running there's a character who has a maxed out Body stat, Improved Strength, and gets a big bonus when aiming attacks. She can already pull out 3d12 to-hit when throwing something heavy at a dude despite having absolutely no ranks in throwing. Having at least one mark gets you two big benefits, though: Firstly, you get an extra d4 (which is another chance for an extra degree of success, even if it's relatively small, and also makes you 4 times less likely than you were before to Botch) but it also gets you a Favored Use. If using a skill in your Favored Use, you can reroll one die that comes up 1 in your dicepool. Favored Uses are things like 'Melee Combat: While Outnumbered' or 'Academics: About Magic', representing what you've got a specific knack for within a skill. Also importantly, there's no cap on how high skills can go and at the average rate of EXP advancement (5 for a 3-4 hour session, with a Skill Mark costing 4) you'd be able to afford one skill Mark a session. So if you want to be good at one specific thing, devoting resources to that Skill will get you there fast. Similarly, with how much having at least a d4 and a Favored Use can improve your odds, it can be worth it to spend the little bit of EXP or the one starting Skill Mark to have a little more formal training in what you're trying to do.
Skills are generally pretty broad, though a few are annoying. Digging really didn't need to be its own skill. It's really hard to think of situations where I'd say 'Roll Digging' outside of the fact that Earth Magic uses it as an attack skill. Some of the skills have a few annoying splits, too: Gossiping is separate from Inquiry despite both being ways to canvass an area for information with your charm and Searching is separate from Observation, with the justification that one is active and one is more passive. These kinds of things could've been consolidated. But it's a vast improvement over 1e, especially as nearly every skill has a firm 'This is what you can use it for' in its listing as well as a list of suggested Favored Uses and a list of the Gifts you could take to improve the skill. Cutting down the fight skills to Brawling, Melee, Throwing, and Ranged is a big improvement over having separate skills for every goddamn weapon type in the original system. The Skill System works, the list just could've used one or two more passes to make sure everything on it was really necessary as it leaves a species that gets, say, Digging feeling a little sad that one of their Species Skills is not so useful unless you're a professional sapper or an earth wizard.
Gifts are the big meat of character building. Gifts also really needed to be better organized or have a direct table of contents. As it is, they're in a series of lists in alphabetical order for Physical Gifts, Mental Gifts, Social Gifts, Keystone Gifts (Gifts that have their own little 'skill tree' based off a beginning Gift), Saving Gifts (Gifts that give you resistance to getting one-shot, which is a big deal), and Magic Gifts. One big change from 1e is that all Gifts just cost a Gift Pick, which you get 3 of to start with (Plus 3 Species Gifts and 3 Career Gifts) and those just cost a flat 10 EXP (or roughly two sessions). Gifts generally come in a couple flavors:
Respite Gifts: You exhaust these to activate their ability and then recover them after your character has a good meal and some sleep to recover.
Battle Gifts: You exhaust these to activate them, but they can be recovered by spending a single action to recharge the gift during a fight and have it back in the tank for later.
Chapter Gifts: You get these back at the start of each new Chapter. Note a Chapter is usually just a couple of scenes, and each session should have multiple chapters. Say the players have a fight at a warehouse then move to interrogating captives afterwards; those would be two chapters.
Influence Gifts: You get these back basically at GM fiat, when they feel your contact won't be put upon by calling in further favors.
Passive Gifts: These are always on and just give you a new option or generally a d12 bonus to a specific kind of action.
Trappings Gifts: These give you some really expensive or important items, and also give you the ability to make sure you get those items back by plot contrivance if the plot tries to take them. This is one of the only ways to start with expensive equipment like plate armor, spellbooks, or a gun.
Gifts describe themselves clearly and concisely and don't get lost in too much fluff. The most annoying part is all the more powerful magic and Atavism is all buried at the end of the book instead of kept in with the normal Gifts, for very little reason. Gifts do a ton for your character and are one of the big building blocks of the system. In addition to earning them by EXP, you're encouraged to set a Goal for your character. This is an ambition you're working towards within the plot, with a Gift waiting at the end of it. For instance, one of my players wanted his character to be huge and buff as hell, but also a musketeer. Buying up to d12 Body and then getting the Giant Gift (gives you extended reach and lets you carry more because you're the size of Guts from Berserk) took all 3 of his starting gifts and left him no room to buy a Musketeer's Trappings. So he decided to say his PC had the Goal of 'get back my stolen guns and letter of commission' with the reward of gaining Musketeer's Trappings after the first plotline when he got his gun back from the scofflaws that robbed him before the game started. Gifts provide a lot of extra options and actions, as well as meaningful options for banking your actions in combat or using skills or stats in different ways, and in general they're quite well done. A few are clunkers, obviously, but since they all cost the same there's no harm in having Spelunker available since there's nothing that forces you to take it instead of, say, Resolve (add your Will to your damage resistance and get access to a bunch of other defense Gifts) besides it bloating the book slightly and causing some of the organizational problems.
Next up: Combat! I actually really like the game's combat system.
It's time to go over how to actually fight someone!
Original SA post
Ironclaw, Squaring the Circle!
It's time to go over how to actually fight someone! To do this, we'll have to briefly touch on equipment, explain damage, and go over why the game is both exactly as lethal as it looks and way less so.
First, gear and damage. Gear is an important part of combat, just, there's like dozens of weapons and a ton of armor. The weapons all at least fulfill different mechanical roles (aside from a few that are just variants on 'Damage+2, does nothing else' as basic maces, axes, and hand weapons) but the list is staggering. The important thing to note about a weapon is that they do their damage rating, plus however many of your attack dice beat the enemy's highest defense die. So say I take a swing at a guy with a basic longsword and get 1 success. I do 3 damage. Instead of hit-points, you have damage states and soak dice. If you take 0 damage from a blow, you're sent Reeling (knocked off balance) but nothing else happens. If you take 1, you're Hurt and take +1 damage from all future hits. If you take 2, you're Hurt and Afraid, meaning you can't strike back on your turn until you either back off and recover or an ally rallies you. If you take 3, you're Injured (+2 to damage taken) and Afraid. If you take 4, you're mortally wounded and drop to the floor to check if you start bleeding out. 5, and you're dead on the spot. 6+ and you die so violently that it makes things look like Berserk for a second and all allies who are in the same melee or standing next to the guy who was just bisected become Afraid. Resisting this damage is Soak. You get Soak dice for your Body stat and your armor, plus your Will if you have the Gift of Resolve (which basically all serious fighters will). Every soak die that rolls a 4+ negates 1 point of damage. Most characters will have cheap leather armor at worst, which adds a d6 to Soak, which is 50-50 odds of stopping a point of damage. A character with average Will, Body, and armor and Resolve has about 12.5% odds of deflecting all three damage from a basic hit from a longsword but much better odds of turning it into a less serious blow. Some weapons have Critical. This means they do more damage on a good roll; they do +3 damage per 2 successes rolled, so 1, then 2, then 1, then 2. Some are Slaying. They do +2 damage flat per success rolled but tend to only have average base damages. These represent really unpredictable but crazy lethal weapons like guns. Some armor protects with multiple dice and it's possible to wear multiple layers of armor, but it will slow you in combat. A character can also get Armored Fighter as a Gift, which will increase the size of all their armor dice by 1. A knight in good plate armor with a quilted gambeson underneath and training in his armor would get Armor Dice of d12+2d6 plus his Will and Body; stacking armor to avoid damage is very possible and taking on a really well equipped dude who can afford that kind of gear is tough.
Fights start by rolling initiative, but this doesn't determine turn order. Initiative determines who is able to draw down and who is ready for a fight at the start, using your Speed and Mind dice, +d12 for Danger Sense if you have it. Actual turn order is determined by narrative, generally by who started the fight. You roll your Initiative versus a number determined by circumstance; a fight that starts out close and between two people who were arguing has a target number of 2 for initiative dice, while being ambushed by an assassin who snuck up on you gives you a TN of 6. If you get one success, you can draw your weapon and start out ready to fight, as well as re position a little. If you get 2 successes or more, you not only draw and start out ready, you start out Focused, giving you the ability to either interrupt an enemy action or get 3 actions instead of 2 on your turn. If you get a tie, you can choose to draw your weapon immediately but also get knocked off balance; you'll have it out and ready to parry but be at a disadvantage from your awkward start. If you fail, you start out with your weapon not ready but don't suffer any actual penalties. If you botch, you not only don't draw, you're also knocked off balance and Reeling. IC is a fairly player-favoring game, so in cases where it's not clear who started the fight, the player side should go first.
When your turn begins, you have 2 actions available. You MAY NOT take the same action twice, so no matter how many actions you have you cannot attack twice without some exhaustible Gift that lets you do so. You then get the choice to act this turn or Focus. If you Focus, you bank a single action to interrupt enemies with OR get a Focused turn your next turn, gaining 3 actions instead. If you go Reeling for any reason, your turn immediately ends, as well. You can aim at a target with a melee or ranged attack for +d8 (+d12 if you have Veteran) to your next attack, Guard for +d8 to all defenses (+d12 if you have Veteran), Attack a target, Ready a weapon, Reload a weapon, spend an action to Refresh an exhaustible Gift (like a spell or a special attack), Dash 1/2 your Speed die's maximum roll in paces+1 if you're carrying a light load, Stride a pace (or more if you're faster), Rally an ally who is Afraid, Reeling, or some other mental status effect using Will+Leadership vs. TN 3, Recover from Reeling (which you must do as your first action if Reeling. Basically, being sent Reeling renders you vulnerable and takes 1 of your actions when your turn comes around), Sprint by rolling your Speed die and adding or subtracting your Stride value, or take a big Stunt that sends you Reeling. Stunts are things like running flat out for a full turn, trying to climb or swim in a fight without being great at either, making big leaps, swinging on chandeliers, scaring the piss out of enemies with massive feats of strength, etc. Using Focus to Interrupt is a big deal, as it lets you respond to someone trying to murder you by hitting them first, or scampering out of range of their blow. The actions are pretty basic but there's enough room (and Gifts add enough extra actions and ideas) to get meaningful decisions out of a fight.
When you try to hit someone in melee, they have 3 options: Dodge, Block, or Counter. A Dodge is always available. It's Speed+Dodge Skill+Cover. A Shield will grant d8 Cover (d12 if you have a Gift for shield use), as will any actual cover like, say, hiding behind castle battlements from a crossbow shot. Dodge has the distinction of being usable against ranged attacks; the other defenses can't be except in special circumstances. If you Block, you roll Melee Combat (Or Brawling if you have Brawling Fighter)+Body (or another stat if you have the Gift for it)+Cover versus their attack. If you succeed, you block it. If you tie, you only get the Block if you choose to retreat 1 pace (which they can follow up or not. This can be bad news if they were using a reach weapon and fended you off). If you fail, you get hit. Dodges can also choose to retreat to win ties, same as Block. If you Counter, you attack back against the enemy and give up any Cover. Countering is risky; you don't get to use a shield or any intervening objects to defend yourself, and you have to be in range and threatening the enemy to pull it off. If you hit, they miss you and take a hit instead. If you tie, both combatants inflict a hit on one another, with successes equal to how many dice tied (so say you roll 7, 7, 6 and they roll 7, 7, 7, you take a 3 success hit and they take a 2). If you Counter, *SOMEONE* is getting fucked up on this roll, one way or another. Some attacks are made against a Resistance rather than a defense (this includes grenades, fireballs, and MIND WIZARDS). In this case, both sides roll their dice (determined by the special attack) against a TN of 3. Whoever gets the most successes wins the attack.
Now, this sounds like a game where you're always on the verge of getting fucked by one bad roll, and while combat is dangerous, it's important to keep a couple things in perspective. One: PCs all have at least Combat Save, which lets them negate the first 4, 5, or 6 damage result against them per Big Scene. Two, most enemies are well below a seriously combat specced PC. An average foe will be rolling 2d6 if they don't have time to aim or guard. As we saw from the example PCs I built, Captain Otto laughs at that kind of attack dice. The game is also very clear that fights should *generally* be slightly in the PCs' favor, because again, fighting is actually pretty dangerous and IC is gritty but not grimdark. You're still supposed to be the heroes. Some enemy types can be mean as hell, but we'll get into that when we get to the basics of how to build minor characters. Fighting in IC is much more lethal for the poor mooks coming at you than the heroes, and you can grab even more ways to stop a deathblow as you level up. I can run an example combat if people would like to see all this crunch in motion.
Original SA post
Ironclaw: Squaring the Circle
Last time, we covered how to beat the hell out of people. Next comes Experience. Why Experience is covered before magic, I couldn't tell you. Experience in Ironclaw is fairly simple. You get 1 EXP per 'chapter' (a chapter is a scene, really. If you move from a fight to a negotiation that's a chapter switch), plus one for living up to your character's motto (honestly I just always give this point to my players because I hate, hate, hate 'roleplaying awards'.) and if you accomplished a Goal during this session, you get the Gift it promised for free. Goals are a big part of advancement, as well as a big way to tell the GM what you want to do. Goals are a great way to pick up social gifts like status, wealth, etc to represent the PCs becoming more important and successful, but they can also grab you other things like increased Career or Species, etc. You can also turn down the Goal gift for a free 5 EXP to spend.
Similarly, you can cash in Gifts you don't feel are working or that you feel your character has grown out of for 5 EXP towards a new skill or gift. So, say you're a warrior who gives up his old profession to settle down and become a diplomat and politician in his old age. You could cash in some of your fighting Gifts to pick up skillpoints in other talents more suited to what you're doing now. Similarly, a scholar who finds herself drafted and forced into the army may choose to lose some of her old academic concerns to pick up the skills to survive. In theory, retraining allows for a lot of flexibility, but I dislike that it's always done at a loss of half of the EXP you put into the skills/gifts as it is. I understand the desire not to let PCs radically shift their concept at the drop of a hat, but that seems like it could be more easily dealt with by limiting how many Gifts/Skills per session you can retrain rather than taking half the resources you already invested.
As for EXP costs, raising a skill costs 4, gaining a Gift 10, and picking a new Favorite Use for a skill (the situation where you get to reroll one 1) costs 1. In general, you'll be getting 5 EXP a session. This means a PC can always buy 1 skill after one session or save up two for a Gift, which has let players advance at a decent clip. I appreciate experience being relatively simple, and the flat costs also mean the designers didn't have to worry about assigning exact points costs to everything like they did in the original system, which let them standardize their idea of what was worth a Gift. Experience and character development are significantly improved from the much messier 1st edition.
A little short, I know, but I'm actually glad they made PC advancement relatively simple and streamlined. Next time, do you believe in magic? Or how because it acts like any other skill (there's no special, inborn gift for magic beyond having some mental discipline and being able to read) the printing press and new printed textbooks and 'modern' universities are leading to a major proliferation of the ability to throw fire at people?
Original SA post
Ironclaw: Squaring the Circle
Today we'll be talking about both the fluff and crunch behind wizbiz, as well as one of my big gripes with the book's organization. Magic in Ironclaw is interesting; Ironclaw is a relatively low fantasy setting, but this doesn't make magic rare so much as restrict how much magic can do. Long ago, devils and monsters were much more common and the great Autarch wizard-kings ruled Calabria, and they were essentially D&D scale wizards. They were cast down by the people who rule Calabria today (the Rinaldi foxes claim to have done the majority of the fighting and no-one is sure if they should be believed) and aside from the occasional outlier, wizards simply don't reach that level of earth-shattering power anymore. The lack of written sources from the time and the danger of exploring the ruins of the Autarchs (as well as the infancy of archeology, which is only beginning to become a scholarly discipline) mean that no-one really knows what they were, who they were, and how much of the description of their incredible power is mythology and how much is real.
What is particularly interesting is magic does not take any sort of inborn gift any more than any other talent. There's no special sight (though a well-trained wizard will be able to see spirits and mystical signs in the world) and anyone can at least try to learn to use magic. Similarly, the holy magic of the church, White Magic, does not come directly from their god. It is held to be divinely inspired, true, and its revelation to the church's founder Helloise is considered a direct miracle and an act of S'Allumer revealing himself to the world, but like any other magic White can be learned by just about anyone if they could get hold of the right materials. The Church tries to heavily regulate this, of course; having a monopoly on healing magic and the ability to cure diseases and stop plagues gives the Church monumental influence and wealth. In short, magic is a scholarly pursuit in both secular and clerical circles in Ironclaw. Elementalists and Thaumaturges learn their trade at academies or apprenticing to other wizards, and their magic is as often used for construction or other civil practices as war. One of the Houses (We'll get to the Houses in the background chapters) is trying to capitalize on the Printing Press to mass-produce magical tomes and create a civil and military corps of elemental wizards, even, much like others are arming musketeers for war. A wizard can call down flames, move earth, provide clean water for an army, read the weather or try to blow away fog or cloud cover...it's obvious why they'd be useful to the world and I like that while their magic is rarely earth-shatteringly powerful, the world treats them as another interesting sort of professional with the potential to shake up the world order as literacy and education become easier to come by.
I ALSO appreciate that rules-wise, magic does not use a separate magic system. A Mage operates by Gifts and Skill Checks exactly the same as a warrior or thief. A newly minted wizard begins with their Apprentice Gift, which gives them some minor stunts and abilities they can perform with their magic but also the ability to summon their basic combat magic. For instance, a Cleric or Paladin has the ability to gather their party together in healing prayer after an encounter and automatically remove the Hurt condition (but not Injured) from all their comrades as their magic heals minor cuts, bruises, and lighter wounds. But they also get the ability to channel holy energy, exhaust their Apprentice gift like any other battle gift, and summon a holy attack spell that they can use with their next action. A single action can Refresh that Gift and make it possible to re-summon the spell; using magic in combat is a bit akin to using a crossbow and having to spend a couple actions reloading and aiming it again, and magic is generally equivalent in power. As a mage grows in power, they can buy Journeyman Gifts that allow them to perform more impressive spells, though these often require an actual respite to refresh and ready again rather than just a single action. These more impressive Journeyman (and later, Master) spells are the sorts of things you associate with wizards in other systems: throwing down AoE attacks, confusing or mind controlling people, that kind of thing. For many of the AoE spells, you don't attack a Defender's Counter/Parry/Dodge the same way you do with a direct spell. Instead, you roll against a fixed number and when they roll to resist damage, they include their defense skill in their damage resistance roll against the fixed DC of 4. Still, most basic magic does about Damage 2 (on par with a normal longsword or light crossbow) but also includes a special effect like potentially igniting your target or knocking them over. Mages also suffer no penalty for wearing armor or using heavy weapons; rather some of their gifts allow them to gain bonuses if they wear a proper magic robe and use a mage's implement like a special rod or wand, instead. I like that touch; you can easily play an armored wizard-warrior (in fact, the Paladin class even gets to use their special sanctified sword as a White Magic casting implement and is intended to be a warrior-wizard, and there's a specific Elementalist variant that excels at mixing physical and magical combat) and be effective, but a traditionalist gains a few optional avenues for bonuses instead.
The schools of magic are as follows:
Elementalist: Elementalists are the 'classic' wizard. They control earth, air, fire, water, and if they're insiders at the famed Dunwasser academy and very willing to invest a lot in their spellcasting, they can learn the secrets of Star Magic (the magic of the elements in unison, tremendously powerful but requiring a great deal of investment and generalization before it can be delved into). All Elementalists get the basic attack and manipulation abilities for all four elements for just having the Apprentice Gift for their school, but most specialize in one or two elements if they go further. This is because every element uses a different Skill (Digging for Earth, Presence for Fire, Weather Sense for Air, and Swimming for Water) and stat (Body for Earth, Mind for Water, Speed for Air, and Will for Fire) for their basic spells and no Career really adds its dice to magic attacks. Elementalists are good at combat and their general ability allows them to do small elemental tricks and actions; an Elementalist can conjure a hole, dig a ditch, light fires, summon drinking water that won't give you the runs, keep off the rain, etc whenever they want. As you can imagine, those things are actually pretty useful in a pre-industrial society. Star Magic is special and insanely powerful, but takes a minimum of 9 (!) gifts to actually get to. It uses every single stat besides Career and Species and the Academics skill (which will let many Elementalists include their Career die after all) to put out a Damage +0 Slaying Penetrating disintegration beam as its default attack spell. Now, damage 0 doesn't sound impressive, but Penetrating ignores all armor and Slaying means every success scored on an attack is 2 damage instead of 1. Someone who knows how the world is put together knows a lot about unmaking it!
Thaumaturge: Thaumaturges study the magic of magic. They counter other wizards and provide advice on the supernatural. A lot of wizards will eventually pick up Thaumaturgy as their career progresses, just because it's the state of the art and as I said above, magic is fundamentally a scholarly endeavor. Their default Apprentice ability is also fantasy for just about anyone: Whenever they take the Guard action, they surround themselves and nearby friends with a supernatural shield that provides d8 Cover if they're close, d4 Cover if they're not, improving all Dodges and Parries (but not Counters). This ability is also noted to be a great way to stay dry in a rainstorm. Their basic abilities are indirect attacks that do no damage, but can cause someone to experience a little hiccup of probability that disarms them or can silence someone and make them unable to cast spells. As an added bonus, their Silence spell is specifically able to be used as a Counter Attack to any magic attack they might come under; you normally can't Counter ranged attacks like magic.
White: White Magic was discovered by the vixen Helloise, when the black death swept through the trade city of Triskellian ages ago. She used it to save the life of the heir of the Rinaldi, and then worked herself to death with exhaustion by overusing her spells to completely cleanse the city of the plague. Awed at her power and taking her words about a great and loving light that created all to heart, the young Don Constantin and his mother Luzia Caldonna founded the Church of S'Allumer in her honor, with Luzia becoming the first pope. The healing magic and worship of a central creator who desired to bring all beyond the world to an existence of infinite bliss allowed the church to catch on, as did Don Constantin's successes in war and diplomacy. Now, the Church are the keepers of White Magic, the power of healing and protection. As I said above, White Magic does not come directly from God. Its power is divinely inspired, its existence is a miracle, but when a cleric casts a spell to cure a lord's son of some terrible disease this is not marked as a great miracle. Genuine miracles are an order of magnitude greater, like Helloises' cleansing of the plague. Still, if you can't see where having a reliable way to stop infectious disease and cure mortal wounds would give someone a tremendous amount of power there's something wrong with you, and the church has grown very wealthy and influential indeed. A White Mage's basic abilities let them heal others of minor injuries or status effects, and they can also summon forth a weak AoE Light attack that hits everyone in Short range until someone successfully dodges or blocks, as well as having a Counterspell similar to a Thaumaturge. Interestingly, despite several attack spells existing in White Magic, the church is noted to have an ongoing theological debate about if it is permissible to use S'Allumer's divinely inspired magic to harm another. Some Clerics will refuse to use attack spells, because they do not believe it is the will of God that their magic be used for harm, only healing.
Green and Purple Magic: No-one knows why it's green and purple, but this is the magic of the mind. It lacks direct offense, but it can do plenty in the way of status effects. Mystics are very secluded and secretive, and the practitioners of mind magic are a shadowy cabal. Honestly, they scare me a lot more than the designated evil wizards, the Necromancers. Their basic abilities let them rally allies and remove fear at a distance by clearing their minds, and they can speak to the shadowy remnants of dreams and personalities found in the realm of thought. Their basic attack spells let them enrage or slow enemies by manipulating their emotions, but do no damage. Later abilities will let them inflict almost every mental status effect in the game, as well as directly take control of people and move them around like a puppet. These guys scare me.
Necromancers: Necromancers are odd. The undead are a serious problem in Calabria, because it's very possible for an unquiet spirit to drag itself back, bound to this world. Necromancers manipulate the agony of the unquiet dead to try to power their magic by the spirits of the dead rather than their own energy and vital force, which is insanely dangerous because it's easy to risk possession, summoning something you really didn't intend to, or just messing up your trickery and getting whacked by a very angry ghost or wight. The potential power is great, but Necromancers are the only kind of wizard who potentially suffers catastrophic failures and backlashes for their magic. They're also outlawed in every single society and hunted by the church and secular authorities both, and are generally not intended to be PCs. Necromancy spells often include a bunch of extra d6s to represent the power of their magic, but backfire if you get 3 or more sixes on your dice in a casting roll. Necromancers can, as basic abilities, enrage the unquiet dead and make them lash out, scare the life out of people, and their basic attacks summon fear, illness, and pain. I'm not a big fan of necromancers; they seem a little too obvious and don't fit quite as well into the general themes of the game. They feel more like a general throwback to more conventional fantasy villains, and I find they work best as a relatively early threat for PCs to root out.
Now, for my biggest gripe: I like magic. Magic works within the framework of the game's system without requiring a separate set of rules and resolution. Magic users are powerful without overwhelming the game and they fit well into the fluff and setting as another point where educated experts and talented folk are becoming increasingly indispensable to an economy and society that is experiencing growing pains as it transitions from medieval and renaissance to early modern. The problem? Why the hell did they put the majority of magic at the back of the book, well past most of the rules for using basic magic? Everything you need to do more with magic than just be a dabbler is its own chapter, at the very back, far past even the background chapter. It's a minor organizational gripe, but it's annoying.
Next up: Background! Which Great House would people like to hear of first? The Rinaldi Foxes, known for their insanity and for being roughly analogous to Italy? The Avoirdupois Horses, who are a rough analogue to France? The Doloreaux Boars, who are kinda Germany if you squint but not really because Germany wasn't dominated by an animistic religion that rejected Catholicism and protestantism both? The Phelan Wolves, who still follow druidic faiths and stick to atavism and traditional ways? Or the Bisclavret, the breakway state from the Phelan who have embraced the modern world with gusto and are totally not British, we swear?
Original SA post
Alright, the House of Avoirdupois. What you need to understand about the Avoirdupois is that while there is a stereotype of the Horse Lords as being backward and stuck-up, I think this perception actually comes from the simple fact that they are the defacto military superpower of Calabria at the moment. They may not be embracing the new innovations of shot and pike the way some of the other armies are, but firearms and pike tactics are still early enough that their well-trained royal army and exceptional heavy and light cavalry (and the simple size of their domain and population) are enough to take on any comer. This won't last, but at the moment the Avoirdupois are the elephant in the room, militarily. If I had to name a likely source for their conservatism, it would be the simple fact that for centuries, what they've done has made their country strong, wealthy, and well-fed.
The Avoirdupois inhabit eastern Calabria, controlling a fertile and large demesne of rolling grasslands and gentle hills, bordered by rivers, swamps, and the ocean cliffs in the east. They are an old family, and have kept long records of their castle-building and settlement in the eastern plains; the oldest banner dates back over a thousand years and is over 15 meters in length by this time. Their ancestors sailed to Calabria, finding the eastern lands uninhabited and quickly setting up a prosperous farming community until they were set upon by the Ecoreuchers, a band of a marauding sea-nomads led by an immense rhino named Ecoreucher. The original settlers were ravaged, forced to pay tribute, and humiliated before the sea-people left their lands with the promise they would return. Driven by this, the early Avoirdupois began to construct fortifications to make up for the open terrain and allow them to see the raiders coming. Unable to stop the raiders on their own, the settlements and towns banded together and handed control of their armies to a supreme commander, Gage l'Amorce. He struggled to unify the armies of his people, and a likely false account claims he was overcome by a vision of an all-unifying and life-giving light (S'Allumer), an account doubted by both secular and church scholars as this predated the revelation of Helloise and Gage would have almost certainly been a devout Heliodrome, the original pagan sun-worship faith of the early Avoirdupois (I quite like that there's a probably false donation-of-constantine esque miracle account to try to rehabilitate a pagan uniter). Struck by the mobility of his enemies, he managed to convince his people to donate every rideable creature they owned and created a corps of mounted infantry (without stirrups and modern lances, his men would've ridden to battle or scouted, but then dismounted to fight). Still, this innovation allowed the armies of Gage to outmaneuver his enemies and likely led to the great importance of cavalry both light and heavy in Avoirdupois warfare. After his costly, but complete victory over the nomads, Gage went on to become king in all but name, leading the reconstruction of their lands until his death at the age of 70.
After his death, the families almost immediately fell back to rivalry; without a unifying threat or figure, old animosities reasserted themselves. Internecine warfare broke out for several generations, and the fighting led to the development of true heavy cavalry in the families' quests for military dominance. It also led to the solidification of a warrior-class, as the new styles of fighting took intensive training and a warrior fundamentally lacked the time to be a farmer and a mounted fighter. Into this chaos and strife came a brilliant diplomat, Paien du Boulangar, who managed to unite many of the smaller families through fear of the larger ones and slowly move towards a general agreement on governance that led to the creation of a central monarchy. He perished before he could be crowned, his life's ambition undone by a random illness, leaving his 19 year old son to inherit. Other peoples were absorbed as self-ruling vassals as the kingdom stabilized and grew in influence. Those who resisted the Avoirdupois were stripped of any noble title or property, dispersed widely through the land as captured serfs to prevent rebellion.
Famine and trouble followed years of conquest and stability, and were compounded by both Doloreaux aggression across the River Lyore and a deeply incompetent king. Leading to an outright rebellion, this brought about the War of the Leaves, a great succession struggle over the kingdom of Avoirdupois. Over a decade of civil war left the state in ruins, with no faction managing to gain complete control, until the current king, another Paien, was influenced by a common captain, Itta d'Enclume, to begin making separate peace with some of the rebels and addressing some of the less important demands. He eventually succeeded in weakening the rebels sufficiently to crush their army in battle, putting an end to the civil war by a mixture of diplomacy, concession, and military force, but died of his own chronic illnesses soon after. His friend Itta would go on to become something of a philosopher, writing texts on how virtue alone could inspire the loyalty necessary for peace in the land and that the realm should be thought a community by those who rule it. Her work would go on to become essential to the Avoirdupois concepts of chivalry and feudalism.
A combination of the civil war and the difficulties in the land, plus the lack of solid central authority for over a decade, served to weaken the original Heliodrome beliefs of the Avoirdupois. Missionaries from the Church of S'Allumer had arrived in the land and their white magic had saved many lives, winning them many admirers and converts. Religious division was sprouting from two places, the gratitude of the peasants towards wandering healers and almsgivers, and the fact that the Penitents of S'Allumer drew far fewer distinctions between man and woman than the original Heliodrome faith had led to many converts among the noblewomen of court. The priests of Anu the All-Father (Sun God of the Heliodromes) sought to violently suppress a rival faith that threatened division in the land. Unfortunately for them, their warriors would go on to slaughter a gathering of the faithful of S'Allumer on lands owned by a vassal of the Rinaldi Empire, rather than Avoirdupois. A religious border war quickly sprung up, as the Priests and the king's Councillors called for war against the Rinaldi after reprisals from the wronged vassals. A crusade was called among the Avoirdupois, and the Rinaldi Imperial Army arrived too late to defend their vassals; the badgers who had fought against the Avoirdupois ended up forced into surrender and transfer of allegiance to the King. The King wished to end the war there, but was pushed by his privy council and the priesthood into costly warfare with the Rinaldi as the crusade continued. He would eventually be assassinated by a Heliodrome fanatic for his reluctance in pursuing the war. Replaced by King Etienne d'Sabot, the new king threw the entire force of the state behind the religious crusade and managed to reach the Rinaldi capitol of Triskellian, where the siege would settle the religious matter once and for all and change the course of Avoirdupois history.
During the siege, news arrived that Etienne's pregnant wife had fallen ill among the baggage train. He was wracked with dreams of a vixen in green and purple robes (Do those colors ring a bell?), urging him to cease his persecution of the Rinaldi and accept the light of S'Allumer. The current head of the S'Allumerite church, a vixen by the name of Luzia Caldona, learned of the illness of Etienne's wife and demanded parley. Entering the camp of the Avoirdupois unarmed and alone despite her age, she used her magic to lift the sickness from the Queen, saving both the woman and her child. The King was overcome by the combination of his visions and his wife's salvation, and converted publicly. He declared the war at an end, outlawed the Priesthood of Anu, and declared himself a vassal of the Rinaldi Emperor, who would rule the entire East of Calabria on the Emperor's behalf. Historians have noted quite a few irregularities in this story, such as the presence of the King's wife with the royal army when she was already pregnant, or the seeming ease with which the king managed such a dramatic change of policy on what seemed the eve of victory over the Rinaldi. If one asked my opinion, I'd note that the story ends with the King having an excellent excuse to rid himself of the religious fanatics whose power had been sufficient to have his predecessor killed and to set royal policy, and that it also ends with the Rinaldi ceding all the eastern lands to a 'vassal' who will rule them and own their wealth in the foxes' stead. I would also once again note the color of the robes in the king's persistent dreams. There's a good reason I consider the Green and Purple Magi scarier than necromancers. The new religious order was not implemented instantly or completely smoothly but the pre-existing support among some of the nobility and much of the peasantry for the Penitents allowed the king to isolate the Anu-worshippers and declare certain, smaller towns and lands places where they could be 'tolerated' as an excuse to seize much of their wealth outside those areas, which he used to reward his followers and donate to the building of cathedrals and churches to solidify S'Allumerite worship within Avoirdupois lands. In modern times, the Avoirdupois are noted for their strict piety, and consider themselves the truest servants of S'Allumer; Etienne's legacy was quite successful.
Next Up: Culture and Custom in the lands of the Horselords.
Original SA post
The Avoirdupois' culture can be summed up most succinctly in a single word: Sincerity. They value sincerity and devotion to your duty and social place more than just about anything else. The Avoridupois are a powerful house, devoted to the church and often considering themselves to be greater champions of S'Allumer than the Rinaldi in Triskellian, despite the fact that they land took up the sunburst decades after the church was first founded. While the lords of their house are still called Archdukes and technically subservient to the Rinaldi of Triskellian, the land is simply too powerful (and the foxes have simply had too much trouble) for it to be considered anything but effectively independent. The focus on sincerity and social place means the Avoirdupois are easily the most conservative of any of the nations of Calabria, and it's not hard to see why: They possess a powerful army, their lands are relatively stable, their children are well fed, and things seem to be 'working' for the most part. This also means that there is a massive gap between the rich and the poor in Avoirdupois; while the peasantry is usually well fed, they tend to remain enserfed and the land has not yet developed the growing middle and burgher classes that are growing in other countries. This means there are fewer skilled professionals and the labor pool for more complex tasks is relatively limited. This means that while they are currently the juggernaut of Calabrian politics, the Avoirdupois risk being eclipsed by more modern houses. The longer they wait to try to fulfill their manifest destiny to rule the entire continent, the more they're going to face pike and shot armies, cannon, corps of wizards, superior economic strength, munitions plate, and other modern innovations that might render their exceptional training and numbers less viable.
The sense of strong place tends to lead to strong communities; a person in Avoirdupois lands knows who they serve, knows what is expected of them, and is left to accomplish it. All of the nobility, men and women alike, are expected to know how to fight and how to lead. Every single horselord who isn't physically incapable learns to ride, learns to command cavalry and men at arms, and learns to fight in plate and harness. This means that the Avoirdupois have an exceptional pool of skilled officers and knights. The stereotypical Avoirdupois PC is likely to be a second or third son or daughter, who inherited a Jennet (fast two-legged riding dinosaur), plate, and a lance but no estate to support them; the Avoirdupois knight-errant is such a common fixture in broadsheets and tavern tales that they're almost cliche. Chivalry is taken deadly seriously, not simply as a means to ensure nobles die less often in battle (though it's definitely that) but as a genuine obligation for the nobility; Avoirdupois are very unwilling to use treachery and deceit (partly because they have a giant army and generally don't have to). Feudal obligations are also set in stone: A vassal owes military service, taxes, and obedience to a master, but the master is expected to return it with protection, consideration, guidance. Those who abuse their feudal lessers are seized on by their peers (that this gives the peers the opportunity to seize the villain's lands and property is obviously just a just and noble outcome). Those who trespass against their feudal betters are ruthlessly suppressed. The Manorial and Fedual systems the Avoirdupois cling to are another example of a long-successful system that may not survive the rigors of the modern age; officials, workers, burghers, and priests are already making the system strain. The clerical presence and growth of the church in Avoirdupois lands has strained the feudal system more than anything else, as they exist outside of its hierarchy and are primarily beholden to the holy see rather than a secular official. There is an entire separate law for the clergy, instituted to allow the church to monitor itself rather than allowing Lords to mete out 'low justice' to unlanded priests at their leisure (something that could easily lead to conflict with the Holy See).
As for that, High and Low Justice are observed zealously in Avoirdupois country, but are a common theme throughout the legal codes of Calabria. A Noble is entitled to High Justice, meaning they can only be tried by their peers and are not subject to arrest or seizure by commoners. They tend to have greater rights and more lenient punishments, comparatively. Commoners may only claim Low Justice, and as such are subject to arrest and seizure by any noble or by other commoners who have received investiture to dispense low justice (constables, sheriffs, rangers, etc). The Avoirdupois are known to be exceptionally vicious in meting out low justice, both to foreign and local commoners; a scofflaw can be beaten without trial, seized for indentured servitude in a baron or knight's manor, or simply killed on the spot if the offense is considered severe. A Knight or better, exposed to high justice, will be brought before their lord along with their accuser or the person they have accused, for the case to be heard by one higher than them on the feudal hierarchy.
While the average Knight is trained for war, most of them do not do their duty in the harness and saddle. Since Knights make up the main educated class in Avoirdupois outside of the clergy, many of them spend much of their life training for war, but administering to the functions of their manor and estate in the name of their superiors. Every knight is still expected to spend much of their time practicing, preparing, and drilling their professional soldiers, such that they will be prepared if their lord should call upon them for service. The Avoirdupois are stricter about the peerage than most of Calabria; the only way to be a proper noble is to be of a proper bloodline and inherit ones' land. A commoner has no path to become a noble and cannot be knighted or granted titles of lordship. As mentioned above, the main avenue for a commoner who seeks wealth, education, or power is to join the church and work outside the feudal structure. Second sons, minor nobles, and commoners alike will see the church as a major route to social advancement. The Avoirdupois may keep the occasional indentured servant or criminal, but for the most part serfdom is preferred to slavery for their owned workforces. The common serf is not free; they need permission from their lord for movement, marriage, or any other major transaction or milestone in their life. Note that the nobility is not limited to horses; while horses and descendants of the original families hold the greatest prestige, nobles of defeated houses or those from minor bloodlines willing to swear their land and service to the king are accepted as peers of the realm.
In summary, while the Avoirdupois have the largest army and their troops and officers are well trained, and while their lands are prosperous and starvation is far from their mind, they are beginning to stagnate from their crushing social conservatism. The question with the horselords is not a question of their courage, but their flexibility. Will they be able to fulfill their stated goal and take the entire island as their domain before their advantages become moot? Will they manage to change in the face of the printing press and the gun? Their technology has advanced, but it has done so in traditional avenues; the finest full plate armor in the world is engineered in Avoirdupois lands and it is easily able to take a bullet. Their weapons and steel are of excellent quality, but that steel is put into forging finer swords and crossbows rather than building cannon and muskets. PCs from Avoirdupois country are likely to be escaped serfs seeking to make their way in other lands, lesser nobles out to make a name, or other people who don't quite fit into the rigid social structures of the land. Foreign travelers are likely to find the Avoirdupois severe and humorless, though not unwelcoming. They are a tightly knit community that has prospered for over a millennium, but the facade is beginning to show its cracks.
Who next? Scots-Wolves, Irish-Wolves, German Boars, or Italian Foxes?
Original SA post
I was remarking to one of my players the other day that what I like about Ironclaw's setting writing is that there's a lot of setting, but almost no metaplot. The Avoirdupois are a great example of this. At every major historical junction, like the conversion of King Etienne, you're offered several possible explanations that are all plausible and aren't even necessarily mutually exclusive (that he had a legitimate conversion experience, that he was manipulated by sorcery and clever diplomacy, or that this was a peace accord that allowed both sides to save face and end a grinding war that was hurting both of them, or that it could even be all three). Their social structure acknowledges that for all of its seeming unity, there are still plenty of cracks and the old system is beginning to show its flaws. The question is, will it triumph before it becomes outdated? Will it reform? Will it break under its contradictions and pressures? A game that is about the growing pains of a new era of history needs a lot of history behind it, but it generally manages to do it while leaving plenty of room for a GM to write their own interpretations of events and players to join in.
The history and standing social structures are also extremely important to the stated main theme of the game: Ironclaw is a game about people who don't fit into the last era, at least ostensibly. The PCs are meant to be the educated commoners, the up and coming theologians, scientists, wizards, and officers who are too talented for conservative elements in society to ignore, lest their enemies get hold of them first. At every nation, the question is 'How will we change, and how should we change'. The Avoirdupois answer that they shouldn't, because they're in a comfortable place with a huge army, a large and stable kingdom, and designs to crush the other houses through open warfare and take power to found a new Calabrian empire. They don't think they need to change because they're currently on top. Yet you can see where things are already starting to break down, and it isn't solely in a lack of pike and shot or industry. The Avoirdupois government, in its current form, relies entirely on educated knights and clergy (who are already subject to their own third legal codes and only internal review) for its functionaries and officials, and they've shut social advancement and new blood out of the government entirely outside of clergy. They simply might not be able to keep up with the demands of administration and commerce if they stick to their current policy, or risk such heavy reliance on the church that it can dictate politics independent of the king. Their government, as depicted, feels like unalloyed iron: Strong, seemingly sturdy, but brittle. A war that kills enough of their secular educated class, with no easy way to incorporate new titles and raise new nobles, could shatter their government. Meanwhile, they make a good origin for PCs because their stubborn conservatism leaves a lot of talented people on the table. Either you will run into individual lords who will tolerate the PCs 'under the table' or PCs are likely to be people of talent who decided to look for a land that would actually reward it. In a game about change, you need some forces that resist it, and the Avoirdupois fill that role very nicely. Meanwhile, they contrast well with the other stubborn peoples of the setting, the Doloreaux (who very much want to remain traditionalist, even to the point of maintaining a pagan faith, but whose situation is so desperate they have to embrace modernization down other paths as is) and the Phelan (who are mostly just not that important to politics, or at least, not important enough to be worth the effort of declaring war on and trying to root out a bunch of nature wizards and forest-dwelling guerilla fighters with strange primal magic powers because another house will probably hit you in the flank while you do this). The Avoirdupois are conservative *because* the status quo is great for them.
In general, the reason I want to show Ironclaw to people is I think it's a great example of a game that's gritty and low fantasy without being grimdark. The world is full of injustice, yes, but you're explicitly cast as people who can do something about it. Everywhere you look in the setting, things are changing and moving. There's no suggestion the world is doomed, just that it's not going to look like it does now in the next 50 years. You play as relatively grounded people who are driven by ambition, justice, ethics, morals, or opportunity to dive into a changing world and make a difference.
Original SA post
Working our way west across Calabria, we're going to cover the Doloreaux. The Doloreaux are another conservative faction, similar to the Avoirdupois, except that unlike the Horses they're in a pretty goddamn bad place at the moment and will probably be forced to change or take drastic measures or risk becoming a rump state. Both their neighbors hate them (The Phelan and the Avoirdupois), their land isn't particularly fertile or good for feeding their people, their only major sea-port is cut off from most of their lands by a dangerous overland route requiring passing through mountains infested by a hostile tribal goat people who do not like or bargain with any outsiders, their religion and social structure are facing serious pressure from their neighbors and foreign influence, and in general the Boars are not having a particularly rosy modern era. This is all saying nothing of the fact that their land is covered in ruins that may date back to the Autarchs, the fabled and terrible wizard kings who once ruled Calabria, or the legacy of the great tyrant, who was either a surviving Autarch or a boar who managed to discover some of their secrets and become Dark Lord of all boars for centuries over a millennia ago. They also face religious strife, as the state religion of the Doloreaux is a pagan nature worship that faces increasing pressure from S'Allumerite missionaries and scholars. Thus, unlike the Avoirdupois, who are a superpower and thus pretty content with the status quo (even as it threatens to knock them off their comfortable perch) the Doloreaux can see they're going to have to change things up and they're none too happy.
Doloreaux history is complicated by the fact that until 100 years ago, they kept everything to oral tradition. There are dozens of versions of each major historical event, and the far-back history of the land is so wrapped up in Lutaran (their religion) mythological cycles about the conflict between light and dark, natural and unnatural, that it is very difficult indeed to ascertain their accuracy. Like every House, the Doloreaux will claim to be the eldest people of Calabria, dating their arrival back to an age of legends 2000 years ago. The one thing their sources agree on was that northern Calabria was a refuge for the boars, whether they were fleeing the (supposedly) apocalyptic wars of the great wizard kings or just seeking a new home, until Septagus came. Septagus was (according to legend, though archeologists have found some evidence of a similar man with a similar name, referred to as the wizard prince of the boars and prisoner of the catacomb, whatever that means) a mighty wizard lord himself, and a terrible evil. He is to this day a common bogeyman for the Doloreaux, and within their religion he is sometimes portrayed as the opposite number to the Goddess Lutara, being the representative of darkness and evil. He supposedly enslaved their ancestors, until a great hero named Brugue the Strong was empowered by the Goddess and rose up to defend the people. Brugue's exploits seem to be a mere mythological cycle, talking of battles with giant flying lizards and common meetings with his goddess as he journeyed the land and fought epic battles, seeking the gifts and favors of his goddess until he was able to defeat the terrible wizard lord, but they are also some of the only written history of that far-off time period. They were chronicled in a great epic poem, written by an early priestess of Lutara. Whether this age of legend really existed or this is simple mythologized history about legendary founder of the nation is difficult to discern; in our world this would be easy, but magic obviously exists in Calabria and was almost certainly stronger in the old days.
The Doloreaux persisted as tribal warrior bands, united some by their common belief in the worship of Lutara, until they met the hardened Avoirdupois in battle for the first time, after the Avoirdupois' conflict with the sea-raiders had already formalized their professional army. The boars were slaughtered, and some of their lands absorbed, sparking a rivalry that would continue until the present day. The most powerful chieftains came together to try to match the drilled and disciplined Avoirdupois, and are seen as the direct ancestors of the current noble house of Doloreaux. Thus began 300 years of expansion and war, as the new feudal system caught on and the need to expand the holdings of the state in order to expand the ranks of the nobility caught fire. They expanded as far as they could, but could never actually defeat the Avoirdupois decisively, and were rebuffed by the Legions of the Rinaldi in the south. Once they had reached their limit for their borders, infighting developed; they believed at the time that no lord could hold a lordship without corresponding grants of land, much like the horses, and so with a limited amount of land in their possession the lords and would-be lords fell to fighting over it. This led to the creation of titles of merit bought from the crown by wealth and coinage, rather than land, permitting people to take court posts without necessarily needing to hold significant estates.
Special note needs to be made here of the Chevernaise. These tribal goat people live in the north of what is technically Doloreaux land, controlling the Rothos mountains. The Doloreaux have tried countless times to rid themselves of the goats over the centuries, and have always failed. The Chevernaise raid caravans and attack travelers, and worship strange spirits that no outsider really understands. They are considered demons and monsters by the boars, especially as they cut the Doloreaux off from easy access to the northern port of Epinian and its tremendous mineral wealth; while Epinian is technically in their domain, and a source of much of the crown's finance, moving things to and from the port is a nightmare because of the rough terrain and the hostile tribesmen. This landlocking, combined with the poor agricultural quality of Doloreaux land, means the boars are becoming increasingly economically desperate. This fact is beginning to unite the houses of Doloreaux behind the idea that they are falling further and further behind, so why wait? Now is the best time to unite the nation as one and make real, total war upon their traditional enemies. If the Doloreaux lack for food and sea access, they do not lack for ore and smithies; the rolling hills and mountains of their land yield high quality materials that can make very fine cannon and guns. Similarly, with the advent of print, the Doloreaux are one of the only houses considering that it may be possible to form actual organized units and corps of wizards. Some of their nobles also pick at the ancient ruins of their homeland, wondering what powers and secrets might hide among them. The Doloreaux are aware they are losing on the economic front, and plan to make a great and final effort to seize what they need by any means necessary, before it is too late.
Next: The Culture of the Doloreaux and Lutaran Faith.
Original SA post
Setting Stuff Because Christ It's Still Raining:
I suppose it's time to talk a little about one of the biggest mysteries of the setting: The Autarchs. Unless there's a ton of stuff in sourcebooks I don't have (I've only got the main book for 2e; considering the amount of setting info I've put out already it feels more than comprehensive enough to me) what the hell these guys were (or if they really existed at all) is unknown. Almost every people claims to have faced them or to have faced some leaving of their presence during the formative wars and beginnings of the groups that would become their countries and it's often-times hinted that the Autarchs possessed magic on a scale that no modern wizard can manage. It's hinted occasionally that some of the truly great magical feats of the current day, like the invention of White Magic by Helloise, the founding heroine of the S'Allumerite Penitents, might have something to do with that sort of older power (there is at least one heretical sect that claims she was a being from beyond, an alien creature sent to guide the world, or an Autarch herself).
The way I've always run it, myself, is that the Autarchs probably existed and there was likely a time of legends wherein Ironclaw was a much 'higher' fantasy setting full of monsters and great feats of spellcraft and creatures that could easily be called Gods. The legends of almost every group hint at it, and in a world where magic certainly exists and there definitely were some pretty big ancient magical calamities, it doesn't seem that implausible. To me, Ironclaw is a world that started as high fantasy and has seen the monsters and epic wizards recede into the mists of legend, and that the current lower-fantasy trappings of the world are probably a boon to its people. It's much better to have to worry about war, poverty, famine, and disease in normal terms rather than fearing some Dark Lord is going to alter the fabric of reality and lay waste to an entire country. What I like is that this is actually kept ambiguous. There are hints, there's information and hooks you can work with, but unless there's a book I'm not familiar with the central mystery of the setting gets to stay a mystery, to be resolved (or ignored) as your table prefers.
Original SA post
So, the pigs are in a bad spot. The Doloreaux are an insular people with a religion that doesn't easily jive with the rest of the world, they're landlocked, weird goat tribes harass their attempts to make a safe overland to their only subsidiary sea-port, everyone around them is thinking about taking their land, and preachers who are willing to use syncretic doctrines (one of which is an official heterodoxy of the church, sanctioned and allowed, stating that other faiths have that of S'Allumer to them and as long as someone works towards the All-Giving Light it doesn't actually matter much if they also make offerings to a local spirit because that thing is just a subsidiary of S'Allumer) are making inroads with their population. They're internally stable but facing a host of external pressures and problems, and responding to the issue by beginning to grudgingly innovate in magic and technology because the survival of their culture and way of life is more important to them than their conservative mindset. But the book also hints over and over that there's a great secret hidden at the heart of the Doloreaux demesne, one that could turn all of Calabria against them. It's given to the reader in several layers.
Firstly, and most obviously, the Doloreaux are matriarchal. They don't make very much hay of this, but there is a strong glass ceiling among the cult of Lutara; men cannot reach the highest tiers of worship as priests, even though they are still permitted into the priesthood and there is no formal doctrine against this. No man has ever become a Myste, the highest tier of Lutaran worship; this is partly because they think that women better represent the Goddess herself, partly a matter of culture, and partly a matter of cult doctrine. Those who have served as soldiers cannot rise high in the ranks of the cult, as Lutara demands the highest priests not shed blood or engage in war, and male military service is compulsory. This leads most men to be disqualified right out by cult doctrine. Men are, however, permitted to join the guardians of the Mystes, the Vidames, who are terrifyingly powerful pagan paladins (Several of the Big Potential Enemy Types of the game get special weapons that can hit multiple foes in close combat and do immense damage to mark their elite status; the axes of the Vidames are one of those superweapons), but have no real decision making power within the cult. The matriarchal nature of the Doloreaux is not really a problem, more a curiosity; this isn't the secret, merely something they don't make clear to outsiders.
More subtle is the fact that the Mystes are the rulers of the Doloreaux, not the secular lords. They are an inherently theocratic power, and this is because the Mystes have tremendous power to curse or bless the fortunes of nobles who follow their prophecies (or refuse to fall in line). More than one line has ended because suddenly, all its members were barren. More than one house has been lost to famine and sickness running through their livestock, curiously just after they spoke out about the power of the Mystes. Those who serve faithfully and well are blessed with many and healthy children, good harvests, and mild weather. And even aside from this magical influence on the fortunes of the families, the Great Mother, leader of the Lutaran religion, has the personal ear of the Duke of Doloreaux and tremendous cultural and social influence (as any prime religious figure would, this isn't unusual). While Lutaran beliefs in pantheons and multiple gods and the general openness of S'Allumerites to incorporating local gods without issue SHOULD make the Penitents relatively compatible with Doloreaux lands, the Mystes will have none of it and eagerly work behind the scenes to stamp out any spread of foreign religions of any kind.
But that isn't the real secret. The real secret has much more frightening implications, depending on where an individual GM decides to take it (or could just be the equivalent of the Blue Rose Magic Royal Deer, it's open to interpretation and I appreciate that). The Great Mother, manifestation of Lutara on Earth and voice of the cult, is always chosen from the eldest of the Mystes. When a Great Mother perishes, she is entombed in the same tomb as all others before her, and the official High Priestess goes to pray by her body. The next Great Mother is chosen in this time, supposedly by the Goddess herself, and named. But she is hidden from any but the highest of the Cult. The Great Mother is not the public high priestess, but she is the one who wields the full power of the cult and thus of the Doloreaux domain. The current Great Mother is the wife of the current Duke. You can go a lot of places with this, which as I've said before is something I appreciate about the open mysteries of IC's setting.
There, I'm finally back into it. What's next? The Celt-Wolves, the Scots-Wolves, or the Italian Foxes?
Original SA post
The Bisclavret are the most recent power in Calabria. They've only existed as a separate power for roughly 180 years. Their lands occupy the rich timber-lands making up the south-west of the island, as well as a few small off-shore holdings, with the timber and the decent farmland between it fueling much of their economy. The Bisclavret nobility are primarily wolves, wolves who declared their independence from the traditionalist Phelan to the north and showed the world the Don of the Rinaldi to the east had lost his teeth when they fought off his armies in the Woods of Granvert, forcing him to recognize their sovereignty in all the western forests. They are aggressively, almost insanely modernist, eager to outlaw and forget anything that comes before their declaration of independence. Their lands are rough and wild, full of opportunity and stuffed to the brim with mercenaries, inventors, artists, and missionaries. A PC operating in Bisclavret is almost certainly going to wind up at war or caught up in some serious intrigue, and with the ridiculous number of armed men and women who technically serve no master but whoever is paying them, banditry and piracy run rampant.
It's oddly fitting that I'd write up the Bisclavret before their forerunners, because one of their major themes is not just a break with their past but complete denial of it. The Bisclavret version of their pre-history is considered to be mostly a collection of fanciful tales told by their savage cousins in the north. What is known is a tribe of wolf refugees landed at the north-western portion of the continent and settled there, eventually pushing south into the dense forests as their coastal settlement grew overcrowded. There, the Phelan version of the story tells of a great war with giant raven-wolf hybrid horrors called Morrigna, that had to be stopped by heroic spellcasters and swordsmen of all the clans uniting to battle them as one pack. The Bisclavret claim that what really happened is the settlers encroached on a local tribe of Ravens, who are known to be excellent spellcasters, and were fooled by a mixture of illusions and shame at their initial losses, building the creatures up into monsters to salve their pride and make their eventual victory more heroic for posterity. They point to the existence of tribes of ravens still living in Phelan lands, as well as the well-known illusion and trickery magic of the primitive and unholy Druids that still rule over Phelan society, to back up their version of the tale. After all, everyone knows Calabria is not a land of monsters and great magics; this is a modern age and we do not believe in such fairy-tales any longer.
With the eventual defeat of the obviously-not-actually-giant-evil-devils-from-the-deepest-parts-of-the-woods Morrigna, the wolves spread throughout the land, developing a complex oral legal system and an oral history preserved by the songs of the Bards. At this time, the Bisclavret fore-runners were one of the southern clans of the Phelan, the Tuath na Bianfels, known among all the clans as the greatest Bards in all of wolf-dom. Their southern orientation put them on the border with other, more settled nations, and on the path of the great Via Salutis, the Safe Road of the Rinaldi that crossed the entire continent east to west. This contact provides Bisclavret historians with their first credible sources; the Rinaldi foxes were keen on writing everything down and while their sources obviously contain their own biases, they're certainly better than the half-remembered folk-songs of a savage past. During these years, conflict arose between Bianfels raiders and local minor noble houses on Rinaldi's western border. During these occasional raids, fights, and negotiations, the Bainfels began to have increasing contact with 'modern' fortifications, roads, and wonders like a sewer system, and began to find it difficult to return to their stone huts and plain living. They began to examine just why their neighbors had such plenty, examining if it might be their odd God, some kind of secret magic, or other factors.
Instead, a chieftan named Gaisce Mac Roth decided he'd found the real secret: Consolidation of wealth. Among the Phelan, a Chieftan who dies sees their lands distributed to the other Chieftans until a suitable successor presents themselves and earns some of the lands for themselves by wealth or deed. Gaisce saw the outsiders using the system of Primogenitor, and how it concentrated wealth among a single noble. Among the Phelan, anyone can pettition a Brehona (judge) for legal recourse, and disputes must wait for the Brehona to attend to them. Gaisce saw the outsiders appoint a single lord and bring all matters of justice to them. Among the Phelan, the Druids directed the use of all land and wealth by secret knowledge of the will of the universe (or so they say). Gaisce saw the outsiders' churches held their property solely at the indulgence of a temporal Lord. Gaisce decided he wanted this power for himself, but also for his clan. He bided his time and sent spies to study the weaknesses of the Rinaldi, who were beginning to falter in their claims of kingship over all of Calabria. He realized the value of the Via Salutis, and began to use his warriors to seize wealth and collect 'tolls' on the great road. When the local nobles complained and asked protection from the Rinaldi, they found the foxes' legions had been depleted by corruption, time, and the slow erosion of the Don's power. The details of the raids don't need much mention except the part where Gaisce trained warriors in the caber toss specifically to sink river-boats that refused to part with their goods, which is awesome. So effective was his strangulation of trade that Chieftan Gaisce was able to force the local minor houses to treat with him and offer tribute.
This led to another problem: How to get Phelan warriors to accept coins rather than rings and gifts. The local nobles wanted to pay their 'taxes' in the manner they were accustomed to, Rinaldi Denarii, and Gaisce couldn't well seize their entire lands just to distribute a one-time gift of land and property to his men if he wanted perpetual wealth. Gaisce needed propaganda to convince his people to accept these new forms of gifts and trading, and so he turned to the legendary Bards of the Bianfels. Satires of the druids and Brehona worked far better than swords in driving their influence out of his society and deafening the people to their objections. The new coins went to traveling minstrels and Gaisce's influence grew...except that he died of old age before his conquest of the old ways could be completed. His son, Slaine, found his notes and journals (popular legend says he was so secretive he never even told his son his plans for the Bianfels) and being of a more martial bent, began to use the foreign coins to hire engineers and masons, smiths and gun-makers. Rather than just roadblocks and warriors, Slaine had a massive, modern fortification constructed to strangle the Via Salutis even more effectively, to declare to all that the western road belonged to the Bianfels. He began to war with weaker minor houses and expand his land through right of conquest, building on the progress his father had made in modernization and conversion. Slaine, too, died of old age before his plans could be completed, leaving cryptic letters and journals for his own son, Riddock...who threw them into the fire, as legend goes, because he already knew what he had to do.
Late in Riddock's reign, after the construction of Harrowgate Fortress and guarded by its towers and cannon, Riddock called his nobles to his side. He declared the Bianfels at an end, that they were no longer Phelan, and that he had drawn up a new charter of written law, rather than oral, that all would sign. The Charte du Bisclavret named Riddock King of the Western Wood, lord of a new nation, and all the signing chieftains and warlords his dukes and barons. Popular legend has the acceptance of the Charter being unanimous; if it was not it's likely Riddock had any objectors killed. Thus began the modern age of the Bisclavret, an end to the hidden law of Druid and Brehona, and the beginning of the Seiscethir, an age where there would be no need for the dreams of savages. Swearing to look forward, rather than behind, the Bisclavret faced the objections of the Rinaldi to their new neighbor...
Next: The Rinaldi and Bisclavret, Recognition of Independence, Religious Suppression, and The Bisclavret Today.
Original SA post
When we'd left off in the history of the Bisclavret, they'd declared themselves the Bisclavret, moved to a feudal system with primogenitor solidified under the control of King Riddock as the third generation of highly successful centralizing monarchs, and basically claimed the south-western forests and coasts of Calabria for themselves by right of conquest. Any Lord that swore fealty was given a title and a place in the new system. Anyone who didn't (and there weren't many) found themselves suddenly on the other end of a unified and very aggressive state that seized their land and ended their line. No longer a matter of tribute and 'robbery', this finally prompted the foxes of the Rinaldi to make an attempt on the Bisclavret. Don Fabroni of the Rinaldi didn't believe it possible the wolves had modernized as quickly as they had, and so assumed that now that they were willing to meet his army in open battle he could destroy them and reclaim the glory of the Rinaldi house. This, uh, did not go well, but not for the reasons one might suspect: Riddock's lands had become immensely popular with mercenaries as a place to make your fortune in the raiding and fighting along the Via Salutis, and he had emptied a significant portion of his new treasury into hiring warriors from all over Calabria and beyond. When the foxes arrived to fight his royal army, they found it roughly their equal, but backed up by an enormous number of hired hands that quickly overran them. Forced to sue for peace, the Rinaldi granted the Bisclavret the same deal they had the Avoirdupois ages ago: King Riddock would also be recognized as Duke of the forest-lands, and would have legal claim to all of Western Calabria. The great victory over the Rinaldi solidified the the Bisclavrets' status as a new Great House and reduced the Rinaldi to their current state as a political and mercantile, but not military, power.
His political centralization and legitimacy completed, Riddock put into practice his final goal: Forced conversion of the Bisclavret population to Penitance in the name of S'Allumer, reasoning that he could have better control of the Church than of the damned Druids. Druids were given the option to convert and swear allegiance, or they were hung. Many went into hiding; Druidism sees no sin in lying and concealing your faith to avoid punishment (especially considering the amount of illusion and glamor magic they use, we'll get to that in one of the expansions) and some even infiltrated the ranks of the new S'Allumerite clergy. Even today, Bisclavret faces persistent religious strife as it tries to eradicate the old ways and the stubborn druids and folk-stories hang on. Despite these persistent problems, Riddock was mostly successful; he had the force of the entire state behind him and most of his people (after three generations of erosion of the Old Ways) didn't object much to embracing the new religion of light and the attendant charity, hospitals, and healing magics that came with it. The only remnant of the old ways to survive unchallenged in Bisclavret were the Bards, once the pride of the Bianfels, and too useful to the state to even consider getting rid of them. When Riddock died of old age ten years after witnessing the fulfillment of his dream, state propaganda and bard-song semi-deified him as the hero of his country, the bringer of progress and modernity, and a man whose vision had not only come true but made his people strong beyond their wildest expectations.
Of course, such things don't last. Bisclavret is probably the most anarchic of all of the Houses in the modern era. Where the Avoirdupois and Doloreaux are conservative in nature, the wolves embrace the new with fanatical devotion. Every new King and Duke wants to be seen as a great reformer and shaper of the world, to find some new advantage that will put them next to Riddock Deanamh-Gaisce in the history of their people. The rapid change and modernization also means law doesn't have time to catch up; justice can be hard to find in Bisclavret and cries to protect the weakest in society can fall on deaf ears if it might impede some grand new enterprise. Also, the last Duke made a series of sweeping 'reforms' intended to promote new enterprises and businesses, and to one day compete with the great Rinaldi capitol of Triskellian as a mercantile power; the deregulations and removal of docking fees he proposed instead led to the Bisclavret ports growing infested with pirates and smugglers and taxes being increasingly hard to collect. His new currency proved extremely easy to counterfeit, too, devaluing and debasing it almost as soon as it was introduced, and his people still remain 'shackled' to the Rinaldi Denarii. His only really successful 'reform' was formalizing the systems of spies and secret-police his predecessors had used for decades, men and women of ability used to root out hidden druids, spy on other nations, and watch that the constant bickering among his lords not grow into real civil wars instead of minor skirmishes. When he died, however, he left behind the greatest threat to Bisclavret political stability: A nine year old son who is reliant on a regency council. Bisclavret is probably in for some serious Crusader Kings shit going down.
Next Time: Bisclavret Culture, Mercenaries, and Anti-History!
Original SA post
What you have to understand, to understand Bisclavret social structure, is that they're still unsettled despite the tremendous power of the Duke/King. Up until recently, they lived by Phelan law, and Phelan law has much more porous social classes than much of the rest of Calabria. In principle, the Bisclavret are supposed to hold to the normal feudal hierarchy, but in practice the main thing that determines social standing is wealth. Acquiring more wealth and more acclaim will let just about anyone find a way to a title and a way to legitimacy, and conspicuous consumption is common to try to prove to one's peers that one is more successful. Imagine a much less religiously motivated form of the protestant work ethic and you'll have the Bisclavret. The uniting drive among the wolves, though, is Modernity. Modernity is worshiped almost to the extent of being a state religion, and patronage of 'new' artists, scientists, styles, wizards, and fashions is a constant competition among the court at Harrowgate. Nothing in Bisclavret is forbidden out of hand except for looking back to the Old Ways; almost any idea can find a patron for a short time, no matter how insane or radical.
The aggressive, constant competition leads to widespread corruption, however. Officials, lords, and excisemen are constantly engaged in intrigue against one another, leading the tax code to be even more complicated than any other aspect of Bisclavret politics. Bribery is almost more common than actual, measured taxation. The huge influx of mercenaries, which has not abated one whit since Riddock used them to outnumber and overwhelm the Rinaldi 180 years ago, leads to a tremendous risk of highwaymen and robbers. Technically one has to be a noble or in noble service to carry a 'true' weapon like a gun or a sword, but this law is never enforced, especially among the mercenary regiments. Among all the houses, the Bisclavret are the only ones who see absolutely no dishonor in paying a man to fight for them. After all, it's an expression of one's wealth and one's worth to be able to hire others to labor, and what's battle but another form of labor? Bisclavret mercenaries come from many lands and many places, though the majority are sons and daughters of freemen who want something more than farming to fill their lives, and others are criminals offered a choice between extended 'trial by combat' or slavery in the mines. This disorganized riot of professional soldiers means that in times of extended peace without skirmish between houses, crime gets even worse. The Duke's office has recently reminded the nobility that Guns are not appropriate arms for hired hands, but this has had little to no effect on the desires of the nobility to hire new shot-and-pike square regiments and formations of dragoons with advanced and flashy carbines. There is a very real risk that the endemic banditry could turn to revolt or overthrow of the royal army if the mercenaries get too much more numerous.
Bisclavret Nobles are split into two groups: Those who come from Harrowgate and the urban areas are the aggressive patrons of science and art, obsessed with proving their devotion to modern ideas and progress. Those from the country tend to be plain-spoken, plain-dressing, hard-working warriors in a more conventional mold. At every level, and in every house, the Nobles suspect they are watched by the Duke's spies; paranoia runs rampant and some grow completely obsessed with discovering who in their household is reporting them to Harrowgate. Much like the nobility of other lands, Bisclavret nobles are expected to be ready to lead troops in war. They are also expected to be willing to lead from the front, risking injury among their soldiers; to do otherwise would be like being one of those lily-livered foxes from down south. Unlike the cavalrymen of Avoirdupois, Bisclavret lords usually enter combat on foot, marching with their troops with an officer's claymore and a musket of their own.
The priesthood of Bisclavret is new. Very new. Many of the priests and high officials are foreigners, as the Bisclavret themselves prefer simpler vicars and friars for their spiritual needs. Bisclavret tastes for churches run small, a counter to their usual emphasis on conspicuous displays of wealth. Plain speech and plain dress are expected from their clergy, and a cleric is more likely to find acclaim in a community by helping raise a barn or tend a sick pup than from any fine stained glass. In essence, the Bisclavret tend to expect (and respect) their priests for being embodiment of the self-effacing and communal ideals of S'Allumerite worship, and want them to be an active and involved member of the community. This is (in my opinion) probably a reaction against the very secretive and mystic nature of their prior religious professionals, the Druids, who mostly held themselves aloof from the day to day workings of the communities they served to practice their secret rites and knowledge. Meanwhile, of course, there remain hidden Druids among the clergy and among the communities of the Bisclvaret, working to undermine S'Allumerite religious domination and what they see as the blasphemy of the Dukes and their 'broken' rule.
The laborers of Bislcavret are interesting, because it's a case whereby a massive injustice creates opportunity. The Bisclavret nobles do not enserf their peasantry quite the way other houses do, because they have no need: Instead, there is a large slave population of prisoners, criminals, and debtors that do most of the most terrible and backbreaking work. Any man or woman who falls too far behind in their debts or who can be arrested on some trumped up charge can find themselves breaking stones in the darkness of the deepest mines, likely dying in months or weeks. Captured soldiers or convicted criminals often find their only options are to take up the sword and die for their masters in a penal mercenary company on the battlefield, or to spend the rest of their days laboring in chains. This frees up the larger free population to avoid serfdom, and it is Bisclavret law that at the age of eighteen, any man or woman may strike out from home and seek their fortune. If they do not, they will be enserfed and bound to the land their parents worked. If they do, they no longer have the protection of their lord or the defense against debt and enslavement that they did prior, but they are now a free person. Many of these come to the city to become burghers, and only Triskellian boasts a larger professional class than the Bisclavret.
Of course, part of the problem for a culture that tries to forbid no idea and no new concept, and that promotes aggressive and constant competition, is that they'll never really be stable. Also, they have to struggle with the fact that younger generations have begun to question why all the Old Ways had to be exterminated, rather than just turned away from. Young Bislcavret are starting to examine the Phelan past to see if maybe there are good ideas that could be taken into a brighter future, things they could rescue from the 'savages'. The mercenaries are always a destabilizing influence and could turn on the Bisclavret at any minute; they haven't been seriously tested in long wars in a very long time with the current deadlock in Great House powers. Soldiers who were content to take their Denarii, guard the borders, and maybe rob a little on the side might not stay loyal when the Bisclavret finally complete their plans to build an armada and invade the Avoirdupois. The young Duke could provoke a succession crisis if he reaches majority and the Regent refuses to stand aside. And of course, the wolves are always watching their northern borders, preparing to 'educate' their savage cousins and bring them into the fold with fire and sword, if the opportunity should arise.
Bisclavret seems like a really great place for an adventuring party. There's social mobility, a ready-made excuse for a bunch of armed PCs to be running around, plenty of room for escalation of conflict, and a lot of plot hooks. I think my next campaign, after I complete the first one, will probably center around the tutors and bodyguards of the young Duke trying to shape him into a decent ruler, keep him from getting murdered in a tower and find some way to profit off eventually playing kingmaker.
Next up: Celtwolves or Italian Foxes! I'm almost done describing Calabria! It's kind of a detailed place, though I feel it isn't *too* detailed to be fun playing in and thankfully, it's pretty free of actual metaplot. It's all hooks, and less 'signature characters' (except Anime Foxboy and His Evil Mother, but they're easy to ignore or write out. I'll get to them when I get to Triskellian).
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as we get to the other side of the Wolf Story!
The Phelan came to Calabria ages ago, like most of the Great Houses. They've done everything they can to change as little as possible since the day they arrived as the Reeoil, telling of terrible wars with great wizard kings in a foreign land 'of a thousand colors'. They arrived by longboat, beginning a communal colony in the northwestern portion of Calabria. The rolling fields and rich forests seemed inviting at first, but soon after, children began to vanish on the edge of the wood. Then, one of their settlements ceased to send messengers over-night, and when scouts arrived, they found every inhabitant had been impaled on pikes and left in a strange, ritual circle throughout the town. The settlers armed themselves and pressed closer together, unsure what was attacking them, until a single party of scouts spotted the nightmare of the woods, the Morrigna. A beast that seemed to be half raven and half wolf, and half again as tall as a man, the scouting party narrowly brought the beast down and then crept into the wood to try to find out where the hostile monster had come from. What they found was an entire war-party of the things, accompanied by smaller goblins of similar build but only the size of a normal person, all preparing to drive the settlers from their new home.
The settlers had no idea what to do, or where these terrible beasts had come from, until a madman among them fell to the ground and recounted in a strange voice how these creatures were a shadow of the Autarchs, the dread wizard lords of myth who had once ruled Calabria. The Reeoil resolved to fight, having no way to escape the beasts, and set up a network of howlers and messengers to warn one another when the beasts approached a settlement. Soon a pitched battle ensued, the Reeoil trying to dig trenchs of pitch and herd the monsters by fire, but the Morrignai were endless, ferocious, and the wolves' best warriors couldn't make a dent in their numbers. The spears of the wolves were no match for the enormous blades and silent slaughter that the Morrignai brought to bear. In despair, the Reeoil turned to the Aos Diaone, the holy people and druids, and called out to the Fools to chasten their warriors. The greatest among the Fools, empowered by the Druids, mocked the wolves for their failure to save their lands, mocked the Druids for failing to prevent the catastrophe, and insulted the world for being so cruel as to visit such a fate upon the Reeoil. Her mockery (according to legend) so wounded the world that it relented, and sent great elemental power to sweep away the encroaching monsters, saving the settlers from a certain doom. This gave the wolves time to unite, to coordinate, and to fight the monsters as wolves do, as one group. Over the course of their war, they drove the Morrignai deep into the woods, and the monsters gave the King of the Reeoil five swords to seal their agreement never to return. To this day, mothers frighten their pups with stories of the terrible raven-beasts, lurking and waiting for disobedient children at the edge of darkness.
Quite a bit different from the Bisclavret version of them facing a normal tribe of indigenous ravens and nearly losing, eh?
After the war, for a time, all was well. People could return to tending their massive lizard livestock, hunting, farming, fishing, and raiding one another for livestock and land. The land had become the land of the Tautha na Reeoil, and they were no longer strangers to it. When one of their great queens died, however, the Aos Diaone n Iargul, a sect of highly conservative Druids, argued they had the right to put forth a candidate for Tanist to replace her. In Phelan law, even to this day, the successor to a king or chief is always chosen by the king or chief, and by a council from the clan, rather than by direct descent. A landowning faction that had found good fortune in this new homeland opposed them, afraid a king put forth by conservative Druids would ask for a return to the old homeland in the land of a thousand colors, and put forth their own recommendation. As has happened multiple times in Calabria, 20 years of civil war followed over the succession. The war was low-intensity and inconclusive, but it brought disorder and feuding and damaged the Tauta na Reeoil such that both sides agreed: The land was large and plentiful, and there was room to part as equals rather than struggle over dominance any longer. So were formed the Tautha na Iargul, the second Clan of the Phelan people. This division would occur many times in Phelan history.
The next clan to form was the Tautha na Daesich, formed of refugees from the repeated raids and border skrimishes between the Iargul and Reeoil. Founded by a great Bard named Finias, he was to meet his end by being too good at singing. Beloved of all women, Finias angered so many husbands that they formed an entire army and cut off his head shortly after he'd led his people south. He was such a supernaturally skilled singer (or so the story goes) that his head continued to sing after his death, and so his people declared this a good omen and founded their clan on the spot. To this day, especially after the 'betrayal' of the Bianfels, the Daesich are known as the greatest musicians and Bards among the Phelan, and choose their king or queen entirely by concert.
Next Time: Contact with the Doloreaux, the Founding of the Tautha na Oirthir.
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When we left them, the Phelan had split into three clans and begun to spread out further. When they went east, however, they ran into the boars of Doloreaux. While they'd won their war with the Morrignai on having anything approaching organization and tactics, the spearmen and skirmishers of the Phelan didn't fare nearly as well when the fourth, newly created clan, the Oirthir, encountered a more settled foe that also used some measure of discipline. The boars and wolves almost instantly came into conflict, with the boars desiring to expand west while the wolves wanted to continue filling in the east; the wolves assumed the boars to be another species of monster and the boars assumed the wolves were crazed savages attacking from the dark wood. The Queen of the Oirthir ordered Doloreaux captives to be taken to her for questioning, and soon discovered these strange foreigners were people, not monsters like the Morrignai. She also quickly discovered her lone, young clan was losing; the settled boars had superior weapons and armor, and knew how to fight in a line. Outside of defensive actions in the forests, the Oirthir couldn't hope to match them alone. She sent messengers to beg the Deasaich clan for help, and they refused, until the severed head of Finias weighed in on the matter by magic and demanded they aid their kin. This marked the first time the Phelan clans had united against a common enemy since the civil war over succession in the days of the Reeoil.
It wasn't enough. Even with two clans, the Doloreaux's superior weapons and tactics crushed the disorganized Phelan and drove them from the fertile canyon that had formed the heart of the Oirthir expansion. Briana, the Queen of Oirthir, was forced to ask the original Reeoil for help, paying tribute and fealty to the King in return for being recognized (through some linguistic and legalistic trickery) as officially Queen of the Oirthir, and not merely their chief. This united all three clans against the Doloreaux, and while the Phelan version of the story speaks of a great victory over the years of fighting, they never got that canyon back; the Doloreaux simply stopped their westward expansion and dug in, content to hide behind their fortifications and holding the intersection of rivers they'd initially attacked to capture. It's pretty clear the Phelan managed to fight to enough of a standstill to prevent the Oirthir being rolled over entirely, but lost the war.
The Phelan continued their expansion throughout the west, conquering minor houses and tribes and pushing to the southern coasts, into what would today be Bisclavret country. As they did, it became clear they were covering too much ground to govern from four individual thrones, at least in the Phelan sense of government. Far-flung villages were left entirely to their own defense in the south, and quickly felt more kinship with their local chiefs than some distant king or queen. Several honored Brehona, lawyers and judges, were given the task of naming a fifth King and a fifth clan; this sparked intense maneuvering among the ambitious chieftans of the Phelan, all of whom wanted to be the next great clan leader. Duels were fought, and Phelan records claim 3 times 50 noble men and women died in the fighting in a single year (This is recognized as a Phelan saying for 'Lots' and not an exact number). Eventually, the Brehona came to their decision: Not one, but two new clans would need to be created, to rule the furthest north and the furthest south domains of the Phelan. Their decision may've had as much to do with politics as with geography; there were two very strong contestants for the kingship and had they not named two titles, it is likely the loser would have declared war on the winner. Instead of a civil war between powerful nobles, they instead had the Tautha na Cell in the north and the Tautha na Bianfels in the south (who would become the Bisclavret, if you recall).
And then disaster struck, 3x50 years later, when the Bianfels signed the Charte du Bisclavret and broke with the old ways entire. The Brehona were overthrown as guardians of law, the Druids cast out as guardians of the spirit, and the Bianfels were lost to the Phelan. The Phelan made an attempt to reconquer them, as ambitious young warlords thought to take Riddock's crown, but there was an unfortunate truth waiting for them: Phelan magic and skill in the woods can do nothing against a castle with cannon. Much like their encounter with the Doloreaux years ago, the Phelan simply couldn't overcome an organized enemy with superior weapons, armor, and fortifications. The Phelan were defeated, and the Bisclavret lost to the old ways.
Nowadays, the Phelan wait in the woods, continuing to follow their old ways and guarding their borders. They've recently begun talking to the Avoirdupois, despite the fact that the two hate one another, because they hate the Bisclavret quite a bit more. It's uncertain if anything will come of this; the Avoirdupois normally don't care for pagans and the haughty horses annoy the proud wolves. They continue to despise the Doloreaux and the Bisclavret; they consider the Bisclavret a mad and broken people who have forsaken all civilization. But Phelan commonly leave the forests on a more individual basis, as druids, atavists, and adventurers go to other lands to seek adventure and explore. Rinaldi are quite fond of employing Phelan, for the novelty of their strange powers and stranger magic, and there is no real animosity between the two.
Next Time: The Culture of the Phelan.
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There are in
, though so here comes the last update about the Phelan!
While the Phelan can be a fractious people, several common themes hold them together. The first, and most important: They don't especially like anyone else. Of all the Houses, the Phelan are the most attached in identity to their species. Their stories speak of fighting monsters and horrors when they arrived in Calabria, and to this day some of them will maintain they're the only real people and everyone else is descended from beasts. They also very much believe themselves to be the pinnacle of civilization, possessed of the most just laws and the best ways of looking at the world (and the only correct ones). To the Phelan, the wonders of other civilizations don't mean much, as they follow the wrong Gods and don't understand the truths of the universe, and their laws are all wrong.
The second relates to this: The Law of Fenechas applies to every single Phelan, from King to Slave, equally. In theory. They do not have a concept of separate High and Low justice for Nobles and Commons. The Fenechas has never been written down, partly because the Phelan population is even more rarely literate than that of other Houses, and partly because the Law has never been translated from their native tongue into Calabrese, and Berla Feini has no written component. Laws are administered by a class of professional traveling judges and mediators, the Brehona, who learn it by oral tradition. Dalaiges are a lesser legal profession that serve as advocates, presenting the cases of clients to the Brehona for judgement if those involved in a dispute don't feel they can do it themselves. Phelan law is based around the right of revenge and the right of compensation; an offense can be met with revenge unless it is bought off with compensation. The Brehona attends to the case and eventually judges which party's claim is just, then takes a portion of the demanded fine for their own upkeep and their time. Naturally, this system gives tremendous power to the Brehona. There's no paper trail in the law, they're often the only one who knows it involved with the case, and they sit in sole judgement. I am not certain what happens in the case of a corrupt Brehona, as the book never mentions the possibility. Under the law, those refusing to pay their fines can have their property seized, be subject to harassment, or be outlawed, which is about as bad as you'd imagine. An offender who refuses to pay compensation for bodily harm to another and who faces outlaw is legally unprotected, meaning offended kin or any other party may injure or kill them without any retaliation or fines. Outlanders are also subject to the same laws, which the Phelan generally don't bother to explain, or to mention that they technically have right of counsel or to be heard by a Brehona.
The third is religion: The average Phelan doesn't really concern themselves with faith, though they have plenty of mystical touches to their lives. Religion is left to specialists, the Aos Diaones, the Druids. The Druids are trained to serve as intermediaries between the spiritual and real worlds, which the Phelan believe exist directly in concert with one another. Phelan religion is very immediate; they believe in no afterlife and don't really concern themselves with happenings after death, instead believing there are secret plans and ways for the world that the wise Druids must read so they can keep everything on the proper track according to the signs and portents. Most of their festivals are about celebrating the life they have now, and worshiping the power of nature around them. Phelan gods are animistic representations of the natural forces around them. Druids keep to their own, performing their rites and propitiation in secret and preserving their own hidden tradition as they advise the clans.
Among the Phelan, social status is determined by owned property. A Chieftain or King is someone who owns the property of the entire clan, and technically all others rent their property from the Chieftain or receive it as gifts and honors. Rich nobles will be called Flaith, translating to Prince or Princess, and are marked by possessing plenty of land and many, many lizard-cows. Aires are also considered nobles, but pay rent to the Flaith and Chieftain for their property and consist of those whose goods are primarily moveable. Skilled craftsmen, rich merchants, some Brehona, etc will make up the Aires of a clan. All nobles wear a torc to mark their status; any outside who happens to wear similar as decoration is bound to get themselves into trouble for impersonating a noble.
Fianna are roughly translated as knights or thanes, and they serve as the professional warriors of a clan. Fianna are marked apart from the clan, living in their own community of warriors. Fianna can range from clansmen who distinguish themselves in raids and skirmishes and become admitted to the community of fighters to fierce atavists who have studied their entire lives to tear enemies apart with their bare claws. Fianna do not collect taxes or administer land like other House knights; their duty is to patrol the clan's holding, train themselves for war, and deal with any incursions be they raids by other clans, outsiders, or Morrignai remnants. Fianna tend to rob outsiders, and like to make a show in battle to make sure tales of their prowess and reputation spread. Some will also make slaves of undefended wanderers and vagabonds by force of arms.
Feine are the free tenants of a clan. They hold no land of their own, but are full members of the clan and work the land of the Aires, Chieftains, and Flatha. Unlike serfs in other lands, the only thing keeping a Feine from rising up to an Aire is lack of land; should they manage to attain a plot of their own and rent to others, they will become a Noble of their clan. Similarly, a Feine who fights well in the militia might be offered a place as a Fianna. Fudir are the lowest members of a Clan, those who are debtors or non-wolves. They are technically fully protected under law, but own nothing of their own and in many clans, are really little better off than slaves. Most Fudir are non-wolves; the Phelan don't really care for outsiders. Actual slaves are captives taken in war, given the worst jobs and forced to labor. They can also be criminals or debtors who were forced to sell their personage to survive. The children of slaves become Fudir, and slaves are not entitled to the full protection of the law, only 'freedom from cruelty'. An exceptionally bad master may end up before a Brehona and be forced to pay compensation to their slaves, which usually means freeing them.
So that's the Phelan! Next up, we talk about their total opposite, the Rinaldi and their great city of Triskellian. Next time: Crazy Italian Intrigue Foxes!
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Meanwhile, on an island the size of Pennsylvania, it's time for more
The Rinaldi Foxes are the richest and most cosmopolitan of all the Houses, and once ruled the entirety of Calabria. Now, despite their repeated military defeats, they still hold the largest and wealthiest urban center (and the most important sea and river port) in all of Calabria, the great city of Triskellian. The foxes claim they were the only original inhabitants of the island, and that all others are intruders and immigrants. They also claim that the noble Grey Foxes of the past slew the Autarch wizard kings and freed the island, a claim most people doubt. What's known is that millennia ago, a fox noble by the name of Jon the Wise (who is said to have descended from the Autarchs themselves) set about uniting the various fox clans to control the southern delta of the of the all-important Granvert river. The coastal plains around the delta were rich and fertile, the fishing was good, and the river itself navigable. Fresh water was easily available and the bay would eventually prove very accommodating to shipbuilding and docks. It was the ideal place for a town to grow, and then a city from that. The fertile plains and the mercantile skill of the foxes quickly saw them incorporating other minor alliances and Houses into their growing sphere of influence, and the plains saw them make a great breakthrough in military technology. Predatory, aggressive lizard-beasts called Destriers roamed the lands, you see, and the foxes managed to capture and tame them. This meant they had raptor-dragon-knights; The Rinaldi had heavy cavalry before any other power on the island. The Rinaldi also armed and paid off the Chervenaise, mysterious goat-tribes of the northern mountains, to close the narrow passes and ensure it was difficult to reach the northern mining territory of Epinian without going through Rinaldi ships using the river and bay, since the overland route was suddenly so dangerous.
With their fingers in most of the trade of the island and their military secure, the Rinaldi set to improving their grand city. Not only this, but the foxes' legions and engineers began to construct aquaducts, sewer systems, and a great road that went from the west to the east coast, and that was patrolled by the famed legions and Rinaldi cavalry. It was named the Via Salutis, the Safe Road, and it was said that during the golden age of the Rinaldi any man could walk it without fear or need for guards for his goods. Safety was guaranteed by the greatest army and the richest nation the island had ever known, while the Minor Houses sung the praises of the mighty foxes and their High King, the Don (or Donna) Rinaldi.
Naturally, no empire lasts without difficulty. By the time of the 14th Don, Don Rafael de Rinaldi, several years of extreme weather had damaged the sea trade to Epinian and the lack of funds caused some of the public works to fall into disrepair. Poor harvests helped people to begin losing faith in their city and their Don. Soldiers could not be paid, and the extravagant security of the Via Salutis fell. Legionaries turned to banditry, and minor houses stalked the trade routes to threaten and extort. On top of all of this came the threat that would give this period its name, the Time of Weeping: Trade from foreign shores brought with it a new disease, one the Rinaldi had never seen, and the shadow of plague and death stalked the streets of Triskellian.
As the Don died of plague and the sickness ravaged his household, however, one common red vixen saw a strange vision of a great and warming light surrounding all things. She was Helloise, nursemaid to the Don's young son, Constantin. The boy lay sick with the same plague that had struck down his father, and much like his father, the finest doctors in the land could do nothing. Helloise took the boy into her arms and prayed for his safety, and suddenly, the sores healed and the fever passed in an instant. All around swore they could see the same light she'd witnessed in her vision, suffusing both the vixen and the kit. She rushed to the streets and began to go house to house, using this strange new power to cure every person she could touch, until she realized one woman could not save an entire city by hand. She prayed to the light for the strength to save her city, and suddenly, a white flame swept all of Triskellian. By the time it was complete, not a single bubo or sore remained; the plague had been burned away, eradicated, and the city delivered. The effort of the great spell had cost Helloise her life, however, but she had discovered the power of White Magic. The people Helloise had spared came together to wonder at what the light had been, and founded the church of S'Allumer, the All-Giving Light, in the name of her selflessness and sacrifice. Don Constantin's mother became the first Arch-Cardinal of the new church, and a great cathedral was constructed upon the spot of her sacrifice, to mark forever the founding of the faith.
Next Time: Italian Foxes versus French Horses, From The Fox Perspective!
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We'll be skimming a bit on the next few events for the foxes, because they got covered in the Avoirdupois and Bisclavret writeups: The Rinaldi version of what happened in the two wars that put an end to their military dominance and forced them to claim the fig-leaf of granting sovereign power to the 'Dukes' of Bisclavret and Avoirdupois isn't much different from the wolf and horse version of the story. Instead, at the same time, something much more important was happening. With the wars eventually settling down and the city settling into its status as a lone independent political entity, Triskellian looked towards ways to reassure commerce. All lands already recognized and accepted the Don's Denarii and Aureals (Aureals being a much more valuable gold coin, Denarii being a silver coin in common use and backed against the value of a shift of unskilled labor) but carrying vast tributes of coinage about was cumbersome and engendered raiders. To solve this problem, the Rinaldi began to establish vaults in the capitols of Avoirdupois and Bisclavret, and to issue promissory notes notes that allowed a merchant to deposit their actual coinage in Triskellian and then cash the note for the coinage held in capitols when they arrived. Paper money and banking had begun, making the transit of money much easier and safer. It also enhanced the status of the Guild of Merchants, who received permission from the Don to establish their own contractual and legal courts to handle the affairs of commerce. For the first time, they began to record not only the High and Low laws of the land, but also to mark precedent, the results of legal trials, and the negotiation of contracts as a matter of public record.
The Rinaldi watched their commoners growing wealthy and increasingly powerful, and the Dons decided this was less of a threat than it looked. So long as they were publicly respected, and given their cut, they saw no reason not to allow the commoners to establish a council of their own to handle the matters of merchants and commercial affairs. The Don even began to seek their advice on matters of state and Rinaldi began to use the common businessmen for loans or investment, eager to grow the wealth of their remaining city. The Church continued to establish itself through the centuries, and became a great promoter of the medical arts in addition to their white magic; the Church relies heavily on charity and medical aid to promote its good name and win converts. Similarly, considering they were founded when their Christ figure single-handedly killed the black death at cost of her own life, it's easy to envision the Church considering the fight against disease and sickness a holy imperative. This also led the engineers of the city to develop a marvelous sewer system and aqueducts, baths, and fountains to promote public health.
The defeat at the hands of the Bisclavret and the total end of the old military power of the Rinaldi unnerved the merchants and hurt the prestige of the crown. This led to merchants hiring extensively among the free-swords and mercenaries of the land to protect their holdings and ensure their caravans. But where a mercenary could be hired to guard one's interests, he would be just as happy burning and looting the warehouse of a rival. Private guild skirmishes and mob violence became commonplace. The Council the Don had allowed met to debate the growing waves of crime and looting in their city, but decided not to appeal to the Don for assistance; the Don's army had been easily defeated and they weren't interested in being bound hand and foot to the blooded gentry as it was, not when gold ruled the city. Their debate led to the establishment of the Constables of the Free City of Triskellian, the local watch. Unlike the militias of other lands, the Constables are tremendously well armed and equipped, and highly trained. They are also backed by the commercial courts and the merchant council. For a time, the Houses tried to ignore the Constabulary, only to find that while they could not dispense 'high justice' they were remarkably good at finding ways to make someone's stay in the city a nightmare if they were ignored. Gates could be closed. Property seized. Gentry 'accidentally' imprisoned until they could muster sufficient proof of their blood to the court. It was too expensive to keep ignoring the City Watch, and so grudgingly, the Great Houses mostly agreed to follow the city's laws while doing business in its confines. The Nobles of the Rinaldi prospered for not having to directly handle their own security within the city, and so they allow the Courts and the Constables for now, so long as they're given their cut and bowed to in the street, and in return the Rinaldi handle matters of high justice or noble diplomacy on the behalf of the city. Who knows, of course, how long this symbiosis will last in the face of ambition and impossible sums of money?
The other important thing to note is that Triskellian is the main reason the wider world cares about Calabria. Calabria sits smack in the middle of multiple overseas trade routes between very powerful, much larger nations and continents. It serves as the perfect stop to trade goods, take on water, food, and crew, and finish a long sea voyage after. Thus, goods, immigrants, and money from the far flung steppes of Govoraya (a mineral rich, cold, gloomy, and vast land that is obviously Russia/Central Asia) or Zhonggou (China) flow into the city and ensure the Rinaldi will be the richest people in Calabria for a long time. The Great Houses' schemes to rule over Calabria all include relieving the Rinaldi of their jeweled city; this is difficult to do, as Triskellian's walls are high and strong, and with the river and sea it is nearly impossible to surround and truly besiege it. The foxes may not rule the world, but they rule the greatest city in the world (as far as Calabrians are concerned), and that will be enough for them.
Next: My final thoughts on Ironclaw, and why I'd recommend it.
Original SA post
, so that it can finally have actually been reviewed here!
Ironclaw is a pretty near and dear game for me, mostly because I've run a couple campaigns in the setting that I really enjoyed, one in 1e and one here in 2e. 2e is by far the better game; 1e was clever and mechanically well made but very complicated and managing the insane bonus and penalty system made it difficult to run with a larger group. Sanguine's games are fascinating to me because they're pretty obviously catering to furries (sort of the elephant in the room for the game) but they are not making a 'furry' game like Hic Sink Libertarian Dragons or whatever. They're making sure they have a niche audience that's kept their small publishing company afloat for over a decade and in the meantime, they've consistently experimented with, tightened, and evaluated their core Cardinal system over all their releases. The furries are instead a stylistic choice to have a ton of diversity in setting, to get away from simple elves and dwarves and represent that Calabria is a tremendously multicultural society. Similarly, with the Species Skills/Die mechanic, they provide a lot of mechanical diversity as well. This is also one of the absolute most important refinements from 1e: Species is no longer your safe dump-stat. A Species focused PC is actually, potentially, really good. Sanguine is a company I enjoy because they're a 'good' example of crunchy game design: It's possible to build a wide variety of mechanically distinct and thematically interesting PCs in IC's rules, and while it's also possible to gimp your character mechanically (there are enough options that you certainly can make someone who is pretty sub-par) they've done their best to make it difficult and the game is mostly without obvious 'trap' options. It's generally well organized, though a few things could've been a little clearer (range rules are only printed in one place and have no boldface, despite being extremely important, and magic's advanced abilities really shouldn't all be off in their own section at the end of the book) and not terribly difficult to pick up. I buy Sanguine's games for the mechanics, and IC 2e represents a great streamlining of a game I really enjoyed already.
What's surprising, then, is Calabria is actually a really good fantasy setting. Once you get past the furry bit, it's a solid low fantasy setting that has a good sense of scale, enough detail to give plenty of campaign hooks, but enough mysteries and hidden bits to allow a group to customize the setting to their liking. It's completely lacking in metaplot and is happy to simply suggest possibilities: Want to discover (and write) the dark secrets of the wizard lords who came before? Want to run Walt Disney's The Borgias? Want to run a simple group of mercenaries who just want to survive, look to their mates, and make it to retirement? All are equally doable. The one unifying theme is: IC 2e understand the PCs are the protagonists. It is clear at every level, from the mechanics to the fluff, that you are meant to be people who are larger than life and who have enough agency to make a real mark on the world if you try. The focus on PCs being people who don't fit into the old age while the world is on the cusp of a new historical era is a great concept for a fantasy RPG, and is easily the best decision in the game.
Ironclaw is a weird game. It really is. But it's a game I would happily recommend to anyone on its own merits. If you want a low fantasy RPG of intrigue and exciting combat that has more mechanical crunch and heft, I can't think of a better option.
There. At long last, the curse is broken and even if I took months to do it, someone has reviewed Ironclaw. What next? Jadeclaw? Book of Mysteries? Continue the Sanguine power-hour with Myriad Song (I make no guarantees I can review it especially *well* as I've never actually run thatone)? Or return to and finish WHFRP2e?