Orthesian Herald: session 2 – The Last Bastion of Mankind

We are in Haimm, an ill-omened system on the edge of civilised space, far out to the galactic west of Holy Terra. Twin white suns blaze fiercely here, their titanic gravity wells doing battle over the shattered bones of celestial bodies from a bygone era.

You have been travelling for several months from another part of the galaxy to seek fortune and glory among the Nomad Stars, as part of the remit of your newly-inherited Warrant of Trade.

Captain Tassa Zacherie Aphesius Orthesian has gathered a crew over 20-thousand strong to pilot the flagship of the Orthesian Dynasty – the Unbroken Resolve – and a staff of five advisors, counselors and warriors to act as the Dynasty’s eyes, ears and fists. (See here for the full run-down of characters)

Your journey has been long, and although no warp jump could ever be considered simple, it has been relatively placid compared to the adventures that lie ahead.

Upon arriving in the system, your deck crew have set a course for the only inhabited body and safe harbour to resupply before venturing forth: Port Impetus.

You barely have time to warm up the plasma drive for several days of inter-system travel when a Vox Officer informs you of an incoming message, encrypted in your dynasty’s personal cypher. You hear an old man’s voice, cracked with age:

”My Lord, I am Aubrey Luther. You do not know me, but I have been waiting a long time for a member of your family to return. I bear a message and a gift from your Great Grandfather, Lord-Admiral Thaler Orthesian. I would meet with you as soon as possible in the Court of the Dead, the biggest market square in Port Impetus, at the coordinates encrypted within this message. It is a matter, I assure you, that promises great glory.”

The ill-omened system of Haimm
Introducing the setting and characters

One of the trickiest parts of starting a new game is setting the tone for the universe and introducing the key elements (in this case, the characters and their roles on the ship) in as little effort on the players’ behalf as possible.

I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘you meet in a bar, introduce yourselves’, as although that’s handy for getting a mental image of your co-players, it’s mostly just reading the descriptions off you character sheet. A combination of stage fright and unfamiliarity with the game world can make this an unsatisfactory introduction for new and experienced players alike.

Instead of asking players to react to each other, I wanted to establish their roles as head honchos on a ship of thousands of faceless goons by asking them to react to ‘typical’ scenarios they might find aboard their ship. They would be unique to each character, reinforcing that character’s role aboard the Unbroken Resolve and help the players flesh out their personalities by providing them with mini crises.

Captain: On top of your regular Captainly duties, you are presented with a report of goings-on that are worthy of your attention. You cannot be everywhere at once so these have been delegated to your senior officers, but you do have enough time between your important administrative duties to oversee and assist up to two out of the five reports if you deem it necessary.

The Captain was given a handout of what the other players would be up to, and he could choose any two to assist. I wanted to reinforce the idea that the Captain was a powerful character that can pretty much do anything, but the challenge is in prioritising what you should be doing. He ended up assisting the Astropath and the Arch Militant, with varying degrees of success…

Voidmaster Zilla: The course charted by your deck officers is the safest but not necessarily the quickest. There are a few errant gravity wells of larger celestial shards between you and Port Impetus that could be used to slingshot you to your destination at a much greater speed, but a much greater risk.

Pilot+Manoeuvrability test, if failed, it would have done 1 Damage to the ship plus 1 per Degree of Failure (minus armour). As it was passed, the travel time to Port Impetus was reduced by 1 day and the senior officers got a temporary +5 boost to any interaction tests on Port Impetus as rumours of their daring approach reached the locals.

Explorator Freeman: The Unbroken Resolve is a resolute beast, not coyed by the superstitions of men or the predictable rotations of celestial matter around a binary system. She has many hidden reserves of strength, and in this relatively safe system, it would be a radiant display of her machine spirit’s strength to increase cruising speed and burn brightly through the heavens.

A fairly standard intro for the Techpriest of the group. They needed to pass a Tech Use test to decrease travel time by half a day and had the added bonus of increasing the ship’s morale by 1.

Missionary Lyoness: Haimm is an ill-omened place, spoken of by voidsmen in hushed whispers across the sector. Something about the light from two suns that turns folks mad. These whispers are beginning to turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, and many crewmen are missing their daily prayers and break from their work schedules. They need a firm voice and presence to get them back in line and to reaffirm their faith in the Dynasty and the Emperor. 

When presented with an opportunity to bolster the crew’s morale and steel them against the dark, the Missionary instead instructed her staff to round up a hundred of the most recalcitrant crew and dragged them into the chapel, calling an emergency sermon for the remainder of the voidsmen not on duty.

After spitting fire at her sermon and rallying the hearts and minds of those present, she flushed half of them out into space. This very quickly established a precedent of zero-tolerance attitudes to even the slightest whiff of insubordination.

Arch-militant Von Gun: A request for weapons-free has been submitted by both Battery Lords of the Prow and Dorsal macrocannon decks. It is no secret that they are in direct competition with one another for fastest reload and truest aim, and you suspect they are looking for the opportunity to blow off some steam after so many months of travel. The Dynasty’s macrocannon shells do not grow on trees, and they should be shown by example or by force that the pecking order exists for a reason.

What was intended to be a simple Intimidate test or playful shooting competition between the Arch-Militant and his subordinates turned into a pretty harrowing scene. The Arch-Militant wasted no time in immediately ordering both Battery Lords to be nailed to the macrocannon shells they wanted to use for target practice and were blasted out into space, accompanied by a dramatic speech from the Captain about getting ideas above one’s station.

Two terrified apprentices were promoted to Battery Lords in their masters’ absence, let’s hope that doesn’t come back to bite them…

Astropath Gil: The Astropath Transcendent receives an emergency vox broadcast on a fine-band frequency. You are requested ASAP to the junior Astropath’s chambers. As you enter you recognise the shapes of your four juniors in a huddle around the Astropathic organ in the centre of the chamber, clearly in distress. They are holding one of their number in their arms, fear erupting from their soul and madness babbling from their lips. The other three sense you entering, and bow their heads in deference. They quickly explain that during her shift as receiver, she tried to push her mind’s eye too far into the Great Warp Storms to see what lay beyond. She will be dead within minutes, but perhaps there is something that a more powerful, dutiful Astropath may glean from her prying before she succumbs to insanity..

This was an opportunity to use some of the Astropath’s extra-curricular abilities, and encouraging the use of telepathy (specifically the Mind Probe power) to glean information from people you might not get access to otherwise.

After I slightly cocked up the rules for Mind Probe, the Astropath managed to squeeze every bit of cryptic fortelling out of the dying junior;

Pass The journey through the Throat is surprisingly swift but utterly perilous should you stray from the path
1 DoS Wolves lurk in the rest stops, awaiting wandering prey
2 DoS Beyond the throat lies a flickering eye, that watches over the answers you seek
3 DoS Underneath the flickering eye lies a maze of light and a chamber of stars
4+ DoS It is a map in the heavens to a veil of ice and a beast with a broken back
I’m sure none of that will come back to haunt him.
Port Impetus – courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games
Port Impetus

Perched on the very southern tip of the Onus Region, Port Impetus stands as the gateway to the Nomad Stars and the vast untamed void beyond.

This is a place of desperate hopes and vain dreams. Port Impetus teems with a transitory population of traders, spies, merchant factors, pilgrims and missionaries amongst which move Administratum functionaries and minions of the mechanicus, all feeding on the riches that flow from the realms beyond the warp storms in the Nomad Stars. This is the last place the Imperium resides, the last bastion of mankind where the rule of the Golden Throne keeps the horror and possibility of the unknown at bay..

As the crew gather their things, I put heavy emphasis on the official, protocol welcomes they receive from all manner of functionaries, authorities and peers. This is the last civilised place they will see for a very long time, and I wanted to make the contrast with their first stop in the Nomad Stars a particularly jarring one.

They make no bones about heading out to meet Luther, the Missionary riding a sedan chair carried by oiled servants. On the front of her chair is the relic she gained as part of her Origin Path, something that the faithful citizenry of Port Impetus take immediate interest in and swarm her trying to receive her blessing and touch the relic.

They meet up with Luther, a knackered old servant of the Dynasty who has been waiting almost a century in Port Impetus for another Orthesian family member to arrive so he can fulfil his duty. He regales them with his exposition dump and tantalises them with the tale of the Righteous Remit.

Port Impetus interior – courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games
The riddle of the Righteous Remit

”In my youth I served as a deck officer aboard The Emperor’s Testament, a vessel belonging to Commander Karlorn and part of your great-grandfather’s fleet. During one terrible expedition we were caught in a violent warp storm and blown far off course.

”After we came to rest in a strange and uncharted system the ship’s astropath heard a faint message – a cry for salvation from a lost Imperial vessel.”

”At first we believed it was an old message (an echo in the warp, the Astropath called it), hundreds if not thousands of years old.”

”When we examined it, we discovered just what we had stumbled onto – an astropathic marker from the fabled treasure ship The Rightful Remit”

The Rightful Remit is an ancient treasure ship long ago swallowed by the shifting tides of the warp, a ship reputed to hold the entire wealth of a plundered world.”

”The story goes that long ago, an Imperial warlord discovered an ancient colony of man that had fallen to heretical worship and it was put to the sword, sweeping away a thousand years of civilisation in three days of fire and blood.”

”When the killing was done and the corpse counters began gathering up the detritus of genocide, the warlord marvelled at the riches he had won.”

”He did not trust his fellow crusaders to carry it away, so he set about filling his flagship, the Rightful Remit, from stern to prow. He tore out gun decks and launch bays, marooned thousands of his crew and stripped away the vessel’s innards until she was bursting with plunder. The warlord then vanished into the warp and from the pages of history.

”Free-traders, adventurers and imperial servants have all tried to find its resting place to no success, until Commander Karlorn and The Emperor’s Testament stumbled upon it by pure chance.

”Karlorn chose not to pursue it there and then due to the damage sustained from the storm, but made a note of its location so he could return when his ship was at full strength. We returned to Port Impetus and left me here with the map for safekeeping while he went to find your great grandfather. He never returned.

“For a hundred years I’ve been keeping this memolith, waiting for one of the dynasty to return so I can fulfil my duty”

He hands them the plot macguffin memolith, but before they can pocket it, a cyber-hawk swoops down from the rafters above and knocks it into the crowd. Gunshots erupt around them, followed by a voice shouting “Stop them! Grab that memolith!”

A botched ambush

Roll for initiative! It was time to get our beaks wet with some fisticuffs. I’m a huge proponent of combat as early into a new game session as possible. It makes for good in medias res and helps players work out very quickly what their characters are good at.

Not pictured: dozens of citizens fleeing for their lives

The board was set up with lots of lovely laser-cut mdf scenery from TTcombat, arranged roughly to look like a busy market. The players were in the centre while the antagonist and her armsmen body guards dressed in fancy attire.

The fight served its purpose – to establish a hierarchy of combat prowess in relation to one another and introduce the pleasingly crunchy combat rules for Rogue Trader. It’s all well and good for your character sheet to have a pair of bolt pistols written on it, but with no previous knowledge of the universe or your place within it, it can be hard to grasp its importance.

When all your teammates are struggling to pin down opponents, placing shots between cover or grappling with foes in close combat, it’s easy see where your strengths lie when you can comfortably explode at least one enemy head per turn with your hand-held rapid fire rocket launcher pistols.

Lady Ash and her cadre of fancy armsmen

The combat went in our crew’s favour, despite the Captain sustaining a dangerous amount of damage from a fluffed Displacer Field check. The armsmen were only trying to pin down the players with grenades and suppressing fire so they could try and grab the memolith, which was working until the players figured out their plan and concentrated fire on anyone trying to dash for the memolith lying on the ground.

We were playing in a crowded market area, so there was an additional -30 imposed to any shooting actions for the first few rounds as the press of panicking bodies was so thick. I’d already decided that grievous misses would result in a poor bystander biting a bullet instead, mostly just a narrative device to help reinforce the reasons for the penalties.

What I hadn’t counted on was the Captain and the Astropath blasting away into the crowd with plasma pistols trying to get the foe that was scrabbling for the memolith on the floor. The half-incinerated bodies of “near misses” kept piling up. The port authorities weren’t impressed.

Another angle of Lady Ash – an Escher ganger model as a base
A brush with the law

The Boys in Blue arrived, cracking skulls with their shock mauls and ‘inviting’ the Rogue Trader and his crew to accompany them to see the Marshall. As a Rogue Trader, your fancy bit of paper works as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for most ‘minor’ crimes like manslaughter and destruction of property.

A typical Adeptus Arbites officer – courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games

The slap on the wrist from the Precinct Marshall amounted to; “I could prosecute you, but that would involve a lot of paperwork on both our counts, so could you just bugger off and not do it again, ta.” Again, I wanted to enforce the rule of Imperial Law versus non-Imperial space (when we get there).

They also managed to learn the name of their attackers; the armsmen were under the employ of a Rogue Trader called Hadarak Fel – another reason the Marshall was keen not to get involved. Two Rogue Traders actively brawling on Imperial soil is an administrative nightmare.

Cast off

So our gang of scallywags had a quest, a fight, a rival and adventure in their hearts and were ready cast off and fly out into the heavens.

One last thing before they went though – our resident quadruped techpriest decided to skitter away as everyone was boarding and find a quiet harbour console somewhere. It was being used, but he politely unplugged the poor servitor so he could engage HACKER MODE.

After a trawl through the files of ships at berth, he found a frigate called the Fel Hand. Without any other information available he couldn’t know for sure, but a Rogue Trader is definitely the kind of person who would call a ship a pun of his own name. With some techno-wizardry he changed the ship’s time slot for tomorrow, which would would have a knock-on effect on a whole bunch of logistics and delay the Fel Hand’s departure by several days. There are no rivalries like petty rivalries, eh?

And with that, the crew of the Unbroken Resolve sailed out into the inky void, ready to stare down the Throat and into the adventures that lay beyond.

+++++++

Next: Session 3 – Into the Throat

Previous: Session 1 – The Unbroken Resolve and All Those Who Sail Therein

Meanwhile, on the Bench: Syracuse surface map

From the viewport you can see Syracuse in the distance – a concentration of pinpricks of light in the infinite darkness. It draws vessels from far and wide like moths to a flame. The skies around the planet are polluted with starships of all sizes and classes, from the mighty warships of the Imperial Navy on patrol outside their home dock of Port Sempect, to the bloated Universe-class mega-haulers carrying a world’s wealth of resources and people, to the smaller system ships scuttling about carrying precious cargo between the planets.

Syracuse is a sight to behold. Visible long before you can make out its details, half the planet is shrouded in utter darkness, the other half in burning sunlight. Tidally locked, the planet orbits the Tangenian sun perfectly in time with its own axis spin. Only a thin strip of habitable space runs the equator of the planet from pole to pole, and every inch is covered with a sprawling hive cities

Haloing the planet is a broken ring of drydocks, ports, loading yards, warehouses, space stations and detritus. Syracuse once boasted a proud, unbroken run of orbital docks, but these days it is mostly abandoned, fractured and isolated, left to the devices of scavengers, pirates and reclaimators.

The Grey Halo

Our new Dark Heresy campaign begins in earnest, set on the twilight ringworld of Syracuse. As an oft-mentioned place and the capital planet of the Onus Region, Syracuse needed a map worthy of its stature – not just for this Dark Heresy game but also for any future games I choose to set on the planet. I needed a map that was not only informative, but robust enough to be used in the future with little or no editing.

The entire process was recorded and sped up, in the first illustration timelapse Dreadquill has produced to date. A lot was learned on the technical side of things, but the biggest one being: do a test recording before starting a four-hour drawing process. As a result, we get this weird artifact in the middle of the screen, so apologies for that.

From little acorns

The process started with a hastily scribbled map on some lined paper made on a late-night Megabus journey. I’m a big fan of the Total War series, and I drew a lot on my 300+ hours of Shogun 2, a strategy game set in the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period of Japanese history. I had a lovely framework to balance powerful households, civil strife and interesting factions without needing too much legwork up front.

Highly technical cartography

The planet is covered in a strip of hive cities, joined together by fields of slums, so the whole map was only ever going to be a straight line rather than a series of continents, so that made the planning a little easier. I didn’t have too many requirements for what needed to be present either; I needed a ‘Province 13’ for setting the spooky campaign in and I needed a ‘Province Prime’ to introduce the planet at its most opulent, to meet the Inquisitor in, and to build the Kismet Palace – the seat of Inquisitorial power in the region.

I thought it would be interesting if the different major households had suzerain status over different provinces, swearing fealty to an independent province (Prime) where their Imperial overlords were set. This had the potential to set up lovely clandestine operations against different houses and cold wars bubbling over into direct border violence in the slum areas.

As a side note; the campaign is based loosely on one of the written campaigns and astute readers may pick it up, so please try not to spoil it for my players in the comments!

I also needed to emphasize the isolation of Province 13. It is one of the last independent provinces left on Syracuse, and slap bang in the middle of the destroyed, desolate and abandoned provinces ravaged by thousands of years of civil war and neglect.

Province 13, or Syracuse Magna, are fiercely independent despite having no exports or being capable of raising tithes or contributing to the planetary defense force. It is run by utterly corrupt, self-serving nobles who have ruled for generations, and there is no limit to how low they will stoop to claw on to whatever fleeting power and wealth they have left.

The concentration of the sprawl of slums between the provinces begins to thin out the closer you get to Syracuse Magna, roughly on the opposite side of the planet. I enjoy little details like this in maps, as it serves not only as wordless world-building, but also as a valid in-game reason as to why the players can’t just ‘pop out’ to get some help from nearby neighbours. Isolation is the theme of the campaign, after all!

I am very pleased with how the map turned out, and although I learned a lot from the timelapse process I think with all the technical difficulties I had assembling it, very few of them are noticeable in the final cut. Huge thanks to my old chum Frazer Merrick for the sound too, go check his stuff out and throw money at him.

Syracuse Magna has been my most ambitious project to date, with three factions planned for models (The Undertow, the Ash Garrison Enforcers and the at-time-of-writing-unseen Arbites) AND a gaming board, it’s going to be a busy few months for me!

Check out the timelapse for the map on the YouTubes, and give us a follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well – all your support is greatly appreciated!

Expanded Warp Travel Encounters table released

We’ve all been there -you’ve been playing Rogue Trader and your crew is getting semi-decent at warp jumps and dealing with the harsh penalties the wild expanse throws at them. Either a jump goes off without a hitch, or you’ve played out the scant few encounters in the core rulebook so many times that translating into hell and madness becomes routine, and you’re often so busy juggling the rest of the game that improvising another new warp encounter is off the cards. Time to change that!

Here is an expanded table of 20 different warp encounters, appropriately balanced to the vagaries of the warp and definitely deadly if the dice gods are not smiling favourably that day. It will help keep your players on their toes whenever they’re traversing the Sea of Souls, and make them think twice about saying the fateful words “Oh that’s fine, it’s only one warp jump away.”

You can get the full table here.