Within a distant universe, at the furthest reaches of the tabletop gaming community, a loose confederation of rogue entities have come together to hold sway over a mysterious universal cluster. At the roll of a die, they decide the fates of sword-masters and sorcerers, of princes and prostitutes.
These are the Chronicles of the Dice-Lords, and the world they most favor: Etheria.
A mysterious swordsman arrives in the coastal city of Gran Xandria, but misses an early chance for fame and glory while partaking in the more, shall we say, spirited side of the festival. She’s just met a young man named Faldio Banun–brown-haired, simply dressed and earnest–while lamenting missed opportunities, and introduced herself as Salle Norza (Author’s note: the events covered in this entry involved another player who ultimately left the group due to gameplay differences. So as not to introduce plot threads which will ultimately go nowhere, I have heavily modified the narrative.)
Faldio soon introduces Salle to a a young cleric in a threadbare cloak and robes: an extraordinarily pale and more-than-slightly shaky young woman with curly blond hair and bearing the name of Ayelia. She carries a flail, and claims to be just as new to the city as Salle is. She is, she explains, a priestess of Aryssa: goddess of light and valor, the patron of humankind. Further introductions are cut short when a stranger bumps into young Faldio at speed, spinning him around before continuing on. Salle, more than a little paranoid for reasons of her own, suggests that Faldio should check his bag to see if anything’s been taken.
Instead, something seems to have been inserted: a silver amulet with a green gemstone. Before Faldio can turn it in, a merchant bellows at him–accusing the young man of theft. He’s promptly surrounded by a group of blue-uniformed City Watch. One immediately confiscates his bag and finds the amulet: an exact match for the one the merchant claims he’s missing. Despite Salle’s attempts to explain the obvious frame-job, young Faldio is shortly hauled away in chains. Salle does her best to meld with the teeming crowds and approach the shouting merchant. For a time she succeeds, and sees him accepting coin from a suspicious figure. She approaches him face to face under the pretext of buying an amulet. Neither quite glares at the other as the merchant holds out this or that trinket, but in the end Salle leaves without being able to manipulate any kind of confession from him.
Neither Salle nor Ayelia ever see Faldio again, nor are they able to find his slimy enemies in the Market Square. From his family, who will spend months fighting to get his case reviewed by a proper court, the two first hear about Gran Xandria’s Guilds–notoriously corrupt and shiftless, forever manipulating events in the city to their favor. The only mistake young Faldio made: he wanted to produce potions more cheaply for those who needed them. While no proof is ever discovered, it’s clear that the Alchemist’s Guild has destroyed him.
Salle and Ayelia ultimately wash up at a modest clinic in the depths of the Shant: a run-down shanty-town huddled in the southernmost section of Gran Xandria, dilapidated and lawless and overrun. It’s here that they’ll subsist for the next few months, depending on the charity of a young nurse named Iyosefka; she makes up for in warmth what she lacks in resources. Soon enough the pair hear about an upcoming tournament: the grandly-named First Gran Xandrian Passage of Arms. It’s to be a martial and magical contest of spectacular proportions held in just a few weeks’ time. No sooner do the two hear about it than they elect to sign up for it.
Ayelia suggests, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear–she seems uncomfortable about something, in fact–that they should go into the wilderness south of Gran Xandria to train. Salle agrees. After all, she is a teacher of the fighting arts! Even if she specializes in swordfighting and less so in–flail-flailing? After a few hours at practice in a shady glen, Salle is able to adapt the broad sweeps she uses with her montante to Ayelia’s flail, and teach this skill to her first student in all the continent of Solgaria. The young cleric will shortly put it to use.
Not long after they conclude the training session, a fireball explodes a copse of trees next to them. Debris lashes the swordswoman and the cleric both, and they hear the baying of dogs in the distance. A small group of bandits rush downhill towards them out of the wilderness, and vicious war-hounds course ahead of them with their ragged claws scraping on the rocks. Salle rushes to climb a rock formation, hoping to draw attention away from Ayelia (not the most tactically sound choice, in retrospect). The cleric uses her just-acquired Sweeping Strike to repeatedly hammer the skulls of the war-hounds, downing two and fiercely mauling the third. Salle, meanwhile, dodges first one crossbow-quarrel, then another.
Then the rock formation beneath her thunders, cracks, and shifts upwards.
It’s all the swordswoman can do to scrabble off of it before the craggy, boulder-fisted golem rises fully upright and bellows in a harsh, guttural language. It’s Orcish, Salle recognizes–because her home country of Danaster is overrun by orcs and dragons in equal measure, and she’s fluent in both tongues.
“You orc-friend?” the construct bellows, while the bandits look on in consternation.
“Yes, uh,” Salle lies hurriedly, “why are you here?”
“Waiting for orders from Warchief,” the golem says. A crossbow-quarrel strikes the stony behemoth. “They enemies?” It asks.
“Yes!” Salle says. This is much less of a lie. Quite suddenly the golem turns, accelerating rapidly into a thunderous charge. While it distracts Salle, the cleric behind her pulls a most unusual trick, and steps from shadow into shadow across a vast distance. She immediately hefts up her flail and smashes another bandit to the forest floor. Before she or Salle can do more, the golem plows into the remaining bandits and pulps them wholesale. It turns, one arm carelessly splintering and uprooting a tree, to regard Salle.
“Wake me when warchief siege city,” it rumbles, and returns to its slumbering spot.
It’s then that the pair hear a cough from the bandit Ayelia pummeled into the ground. Salle is on him immediately, Montante’s point poised to drive through his skull.
“I’d like some answers,” she begins. The bandit responds by trying to grapple her off. Salle is a large and rather angry woman with strong legs, however, and he only manages to thrash his head around and grunt ineffectually until he finally subsides. Over the course of a brief interrogation, Salle extracts that the bandits were supposed to have a mage–the one who threw the earlier fireball–and the bandit begins the usual spiel about how they can have his things and if they let him go, he’ll never cause trouble again.
“That will be for the authorities to decide,” Salle says. The bandit suddenly pulls out a dagger and rams it into Salle’s calf. This would be more effective if the dagger’s blade left the scabbard instead of snapping off when he tried to draw it. Salle regards the empty hilt pressing her leg.
“Seriously?” she asks, in the instant before she drives the montante downward through his forehead, pithing him like a caught fish and killing him instantly. She shrugs at Ayelia, but before either can decide what to do next, there’s one last rustle of movement from the undergrowth. Salle steps into cover behind a nearby tree and raises the montante overhead; Ayelia awaits the newcomer in the open.
Stepping slowly towards the scene of the skirmish with a diffident expression, they see an old man in faded robes clutching a staff. His features have more than a little demonic influence, complete with horns. In Etheria’s particular parlance, he’s referred to as a Geth. Salle waits in cover with the montante’s long, long blade glinting overhead–prepared to cut down the stranger on the spot. A single stroke through the old man’s neck, she thinks. This has to be the mage the bandit spoke of. As he draws even with her, still not noticing, the old Geth speaks to Ayelia…
…in the voice of a seven-year-old girl. “Hi,” he–she?–says, appearing frightened and alone. “M-my name’s Gwyndi…” Over the course of the next few minutes, the cleric talks with Gwyndi, and it transpires that whatever consciousness inhabits the old Geth’s body has no idea where it is. Salle and Ayelia make their way back to Gran Xandria with the child-minded mage in tow. After seeing him or her settled for the time being, they settle into place for the night.
“I was going to kill that girl,” Salle says suddenly, with the great montante scabbarded and leaning against her shoulder. “If she waited any longer to speak, I was going to cut her head off.” The swordswoman’s hands crease on the scabbard, years of callouses rasping on lacquered wood.
“You thought she was a mage who tried to kill us,” Ayelia reassures her. “You didn’t kill her, and that’s the end of it.”
“Is it?” Salle asks. “For a while as she was talking, I wasn’t convinced. I was ready to split her in two right where she stood.” They go silent for a moment. Ayelia shifts in place, eyeing the sleeping forms of other tenants throughout Iyosefka’s clinic. At length she edges a little closer to Salle.
“As long as we’re confessing our secrets,” she says, “I have one too.” The cleric hugs herself, fiddling with her cloak for a while. “I’m not… sure how to say this, um… I’m a vampire.”
Salle watches the cleric for several tense moments, neither drawing the montante and shouting an alarm nor seeming at ease with this revelation. “The reason I’m shaking like this is that I haven’t fed in days,” Ayelia says. “I don’t want to, so I’ve put it off for as long as I can. But I’m not sure how much longer I can contain it.” Salle eyes the fallen cleric for a long time. At length she rises and speaks quietly to Iyosefka–who doesn’t seem to have overheard–about whether the nurse has a knife and a bowl on hand.
Not long thereafter, Salle discretely opens a vein and fills the bowl. After drinking her fill, Ayelia uses her divinely-granted powers–which, strangely, have not departed her since her turning–to heal the swordswoman. Both find what rest they may after the day’s events.
Early the next morning, a great beast surges from the ocean towards the city of Gran Xandria. It soon turns out to have a single purpose in mind: a full-out attack on the city. The crew of a trade ship sailing into Gran Xandria have the unusual and alarming experience of their ship hanging up on the behemoth’s crest as it rises from the waves. The captain and one of the passengers attempt to attack the creature with varying degrees of success shortly before Castle Xander transforms into a colossal bipedal being, generates a blinding beam from its center, and vaporizes a yawning hole through the monstrosity’s torso.
Salle and Ayelia are blissfully asleep for this entire sequence of events. It’s only later, as they make their way into the Market Square planning on signing up for the Passage of Arms, that they find out. Salle laments the fact that she’s lost yet another opportunity to promote her school–how she expected to demonstrate masterful sword-technique against a towering monster isn’t clear–and they stumble upon a peculiar flyer.
“Aha!” Salle says, pointing to a nearby sign-board. “‘A right honorable martial exhibition by the Xandrian Combat Arts Guilds–recommended by those close to Lord Chenester as preparation for the First Annual Passage of Arms!’ Hm. The last part seems… odd.”
“Yes… it does, at that. Recommended by those… close to him?” Ayelia says. Both women scrutinize the flyer.
“That… uh… that’s a very interesting technique, for certain.”
“The Distinguished Brethren,” Salle says, growling, “predominantly spin, flail, and hit each other again and again without making any effort to avoid being hit. The Austeris Martialis have proper base-stances. They occasionally throw cuts which might threaten a sheet of paper, and in five years I might consider them ‘martial’. And the Manglers? Will mangle nothing except themselves.”
“They’re…” Ayelia says, shuffling awkwardly from side to side, “I’m not the most expert in swordsmanship, but I don’t think spinning their blades in circles in front of them will do much for them in a fight. Maybe they should be equipped with flails.”
(As the DM, I rolled dice for everything from the quality of these “combat arts” guilds to their individual movements in the above exchange. They just flat-out suck, full stop.)
After the Guards pass onward, Ayelia shrugs and says, “It might be a good place to start teaching though. They certainly seem like they could use it.”
“Well, just remember,” Ayelia says with a gentle smile, “A healer doesn’t generally need to heal the well, and a teacher doesn’t generally need to teach the skilled. You’ll be okay, just remember they’re… not as trained as you are.”
“A combat arts exhibition, for licensed. Guild. Professionals,” the Guildsman says, looking down his nose at her.
“Um, Salle, maybe I should talk to the nice condescending guild gentleman?” Ayelia says, already concerned that this is going to get out of hand.
“I am capable of speaking for myself,” Salle says, her face taking a stubborn set. She turns back to the Guildsman. “Since you are so very professional, I am sure your skills would stand up to comparison against others, yes?”
Surprisingly, the Guildsman smiles. “You know what, upstart, you have a point. I’ll speak with my Brethren and perhaps we might allow you a chance after all.” He walks away.
“I admit I have no idea how that worked,” Salle says to Ayelia.
Ayelia lets out a deep breath. “I’m not sure either. I thought you’d get much angrier at him. But I suppose I shouldn’t call it a success yet.”
(Ayelia promptly rolled a successful persuasion check despite having no training in it, as such, nor being statted for it)
“Why not just have any challenge or comparison between the two of you not be a guild event? There’s no rule saying you can’t display your skills only in certified events notarized in triplicate by a Guild bureaucrat, is there? And if there is… well… you’re not about to let a parchment-shuffler tell you what you can and can’t do, are you?” Ayelia asks.
“Sparring! A bit of the old hack and slash!” the Guildsman seems oblivious to the world. Salle, smiling, unbuckles her montante and hands it off to Ayelia. She accepts a wooden greatsword in its place–as she guessed, it handles about the same.
“You…” Donnel splutters, in the lead. “You…”
“I would like to take this opportunity to offer my services as an instructor,” Salle cuts across him. “It seems I am sorely needed.”
“Maybe we could sell it as getting an edge over the competition to the other two?” Ayelia suggests, smiling hesitantly.
“Very well,” Salle says, “This may seem odd to say, but there is a degree of subtlety to striking with maximum force. It starts down in the hips, you see, you must engage them much more strongly than you otherwise would and let that motion drive your arm. It will feel as if you’re not using your upper body at all…” So it is that with three sets of successful rolls, Salle teaches Ayelia the Cleave skill.
(Author’s Note: Cleave in this system is just “hit for super high damage” as opposed to D&D 3.5E’s version.)