Actual Play – Man’s Promise (11/19/2015)

Skull and ShacklesGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Karen Twelves, Meg Pressley, Rocko Moran, and Adrienne Mueller
System: Pathfinder
Adventure Path: Skull and Shackles

This was our final session of Skull and Shackles, so I tried to make it a special one. I wrote up the letters to Vyv and handed them all to Meg at the start of the session for her to read. I also handed Rocky an envelope labeled the Call of Besmara with instructions for him to read it immediately. Finally I gave Adrienne an envelope with instructions to open it if Davey was dropped to 0 hit points, knocked unconscious in other means, or a command phrase was spoken. Though this didn’t happen, at the end of the session I asked Adrienne so she could find out about the modified Clockwork Parasite Habbly slipped into Davey’s spinal column when he was stitching him up long ago.

Who will be next first mate?

(From the hand of Adrienne Mueller, many thanks!)

Barnabas plucks Plugg’s Tidewater Cutlass from the deck of the Man’s Promise. “Whoever brings me this sword will be the new first mate!” And heaves it over board into a sea seething with sharks and their victims. Davey can’t bring himself to risk his life, but Jape, Caulky, Cog, Ratliner, Barefoot Sams, Aretta and a Rahadoumi captive (who likes a slim chance better than none) all shuck off their boots and go after the sword. Madi, unencumbered, dived in as well – a surprise to everyone. They are followed quickly by Anand, once Vyv patches him up.

Jape and Madi both see the sword and go after it, but Jape has the edge. Madi also has an edge though – her dagger. She sneaks up behind him and stabs, but doesn’t succeed in hurting him.

The rest of those in the water search for the sword, but are dodging sharks. Davey tries to help, shooting at the sharks, but Ratliner and Barefoot Sams are both unlucky. Bitten frequently – Ratliner goes limp first. Vyv quickly drops into the water to heal him, while Anand rips the crossbow bolt out of the beast and stabs it in its eye – killing it utterly (12pts of damage when it had 2 left!!!). The shark starts to sink with Ratliner still in its clutches, but Anand pries Ratliner (and a tooth!) out of its jaws. Tendons rip. Ratliner is helped to safety, but Barefoot doesn’t make it.

Madi can’t manage to grab the sword, and now Cog is closing in on it too. Jape holds it first, but it won’t matter. “Fuck the sword.” Madi skewers him in the spine, and with a crazy look in her eye, pushes the blade in some more. 7pts of damage to a man already chewed on by a shark. Death. And out of the corner of his eye, Jape knows it was her. (Yay, Team Murder!)

And Besmara is *pleased*. The blood spray on Madi’s throat is a blessing. But then Cog grabs the sword.

Meanwhile Anand has chosen Aretta as his target, and stabs her with his shark tooth once, then twice, and finally grapples her til she can’t break free without drowning. Then Anand grapples with his own conscience and decides to pull her up to the surface with him.

Madi uses her powers to urge a shark to go after Cog and it takes a big bite of out him. But Cog pushes back at it with a surge from the Tidewater Cutlass. The Rahadoumi then immediately takes the sword off of him. While Cog remains locked in combat the shark, Madi closes on the Rahadoumi who is struggling to swim. Madi fails to disarm him, and Cog eludes the shark only to find Anand waiting for him (successfully grappled). He soon gets bit again. He passes out, and Anand, gripped by another plight of conscience, decides to help him to the surface.

As the Rahadoumi is about to expire Madi considers helping him… or not. She shivers as his last breath escapes past her – in a good or maybe a bad way.

Vyv spots Scourge, hiding with his whip at the ready and uses a hydraulic push to send him into the sea. Barnabas approves and Anand rejoices. Scourge tries to climb out – but Ratliner stealthily cuts the rope (Nat 20!) to keep him down.

Madi pops up with the sword. Barnabas. Is. Amazed.

Anand grapple-‘helps’ Scourge. “Just let it happen” and pulls him underwater.

As Madi steps back on board she intimidates the entire crew. Caulky’s bow thunks to the ground. Conchobar falls out of the rigging.

Anand is in a deathly embrace with Scourge, and Vyv’s attempts to sway the shark and distract it with their summoned sea turtle are to no avail! It takes a bite out of Anand. But Anand will not be deterred and trades blows with Scourge!

Madi commands, “We’re not paying you to sit on your asses. Get those two crewmen out of the water!”* For a second there is silence, then Riaris’ bellow propels everyone into action.

Anand lands another blow to Scourge, but a final bite from the shark takes him negative. Vyv and the crew come to the rescue! Anand is saved.


Madi identified the properties of the dragon amulet found by Vyv along with the letters as an Amulet of the Blooded. She also becomes the new first mate and as such, is put in charge of the Man’s Promise, which the captain tells her to take back to Port Peril, but she ignores him, becomes the new Captain of the Man’s promise, and Ratliner her first mate.

Vyv escapes from her unwatchful eye when they next make port – and gets the freedom they’ve longed for so much.

Madi as a new Captain, sometimes needs dirty jobs done, but makes sure Davey never knows who is behind them. Davey gets to have pleasant moments with all of his friends and looks forward to comfortable retirement in the not-to-distant future. Narwhal gets his hide whipped.

Anand goes on a beautiful recruitment run for Team Murder – Aretta and Cog both ‘eagerly’ join up.

What Rocked

The struggle for the sword was great. It lasted longer than I expected but we got to use all sorts of fun rules for underwater combat, holding your breath, grappling while nearly unconscious, and sharks! Vyv spotting Scourge hiding and thwarting his ambush was great. I really, really didn’t want to see his evil plan work out. That Vyv knocked him in the water, Ratliner cut the rope, and Anand pummeled him was all the better!

I did have fun tempting Madi to be evil. She’d been holding back on account of Davey but I was pretty confident with a bit of assistance offered, she wouldn’t shy away from making an offering to Besmara. I similarly liked how similar opportunities presented themselves to Anand (both Aretta and Cog’s lives in his hands) and he chose a different path.

Davey’s “cowardness” might have saved them all. His crossbow bolts sank deep in those shark’s flanks, and gave Anand an improvised weapon to use!

I was glad that the letters to Vyv were moving, but the final results weren’t quite what I expected (see below)

What could have improved

My big folley this session was not having a special letter for Anand. Perhaps an old Chelaxian comrade bound in chains on the Man’s Promise. Perhaps an offering form a Devil. Or maybe just something more mundane, all the folks that he’s intimidated starting some infighting and some assertion of authority needed (Pack Alpha style) to not only settle their dispute, but assert his his control over Team Murder definitively.

I wish in my final round when I rolled randomly to determine who the shark attacked and it was going to be Anand (instead of Scourge) I gave the characters with Wild Empathy (both Vyv and Madi) an opportunity to coax it to attack Scourge instead. That failing, I should have offered Davey another shot with his crossbow! Initiative order be damned, it would have been good to see a “fair” fight between Anand and Scourge underwater.

The letters to Vyv were intended to inspire vengeance for a lost comrade who had fought the Chelish and been deceived by the Rahadoumi. Vyv didn’t have a purpose on a pirate ship up till then and I was hoping the letters would have offered them one. Alas, Meg appreciated them, but they mostly made her sad rather than angry.

Speaking more generally about the adventure path, I think the day/night actions are important for putting limits on how quickly the PCs can win over the crew and start a mutiny, but they quickly became a tiring procedure rather than a novelty or structure to work in. There were quite a few options that were never taken. For instance, most of the places the would have liked to explore were locked (and trapped!) and the difficulties to open them were well past what a 1st or 2nd level character could muster. Sure, there are other ways to get into a place, but when you’re told “okay, it’s your 5th day on the ship and you’re sent to pump the bilges, what do you do?” It’s pretty tempting for a player to say “I pump the bilges” and not progress as the adventure path intents.

Starting the game with the PCs being press ganged into service also gave it a bitter note. The adventure path assumes that the PCs will have more or less warmed up to the captain by the time they get around to real piracy, but there is little done to engender warm fuzzies between them. In fact, I felt like I was making the captain more accessible and human than the adventure path called for, and there was still that moment where everyone has a chance to help him and each of them were like “meh, let him get stabbed.” Overall I feel like “lets start the game by taking away all of your agency” is a rough way to do it. Creating characters that are already part of a terrible pirate crew but signed up of their own accord would be a premise I think my players would have appreciated more. It’s a good thing for me to watch out for. If an adventure says “okay, first take away all their stuff, their freedom and their agency” I’ll probably take a pass on it next time.


  1. Adrienne

    Favourite Bits:
    – How anxious we all for Ratliner. I’m so glad he made it!
    – Rocky and Sean’s descriptions of killing Jape and the drowning Rahadoomi and their effect on Madi. The deeper plunge of the knife, the plume of blood against her throat. The tickle of his last air bubbles on her cheek. Disturbing but awesome.
    – Anand’s Destruction of that shark.
    – How touched Vyv (Meg) was about what happened to her former partner from reading their letters.
    – Anand’s “Kill!” “Save?” … “Kill!” “Save?” … “KILL!” evolution.
    – Madi’s glorious introduction as the New First Mate.
    – Ratliner getting dissuaded from jumping right back intro the fray and then betting on Anand being the one to retrieve the cutlass.
    – Davey’s final scenes with people.
    – When Vyv pushed Scourge over board! We all cheered!
    – Several quotes:
    “What is swimming if not punching water?” — Anand
    When Vyv offers a helping rope, Madi replies “Ropes are for slaves, Vyv.”
    “What is a sheath? It’s people’s flesh.” –Madi


    This Session:
    – Sean made a heroic effort to give us a good send-off. I imagine there was some tiredness and disappointment working against him, but he still made this cool battle scene with rules for finding and capturing the cutlass, and all of the little ‘in case of this’ notes he printed up were perfect. Davey’s Spinal Automaton is supercool.
    – Some regrets about not putting Davey into action more, helping out with Scourge and having a Davey/Anand epilogue scene. (Think I forgot about this! They could have watched Narwhal/Fipps getting whipped together! Or better (?) yet – Davey could have held his arms while Anand delivered the lashes.) But! It was really great that we were able to tie up the story with a tight conclusion and some sweet epilogues.

    Shackles as a Whole:
    – Sad it had to end, but we had a great story!
    – RE: Turn structure: I actually didn’t find it that tiring! (True, I wasn’t the one digging through the tables.) We were supposed to be exploring more? Seriously? Maaan, I felt prohibitively out-doored even when I got Davey’s thieves tools back.
    – RE: Barnabas: We were supposed to warm up to Barnabas? But he employs Scourge and Plugg! Those are two big, throbbing strikes against him. We warmed up to him enough to not be gunning for him, but, like you said, we definitely weren’t invested in keeping him safe. In fact, given the recent discovery that he might have been in on setting Ratliner up, he could easily have been placed on Team Murder’s To-Kill list.
    – Alignments might be a problem. The tension between Davey and Madi/Anand was super fun to play, but I think might have hampered ‘group actions’ of Team Murder. (Davey didn’t want to murder people in cold blood. But I do think we could have got finessed around this with some more weaseling from Madi – or a straight-out fight.)
    – People only sticking together because they happen to get kidnapped and beaten up together is a problem. Once we’re free – why would work together? I know we played it as ‘well, I guess these guys got screwed too, so I might as well trust them’, but what about further down the line? I think we saw a bit of this problem at the end of final session. Epilogue descriptions, had us going off to do our own thing – Vyv escaping, Davey retiring, Madi running the ship, Anand recruiting for team murder. Partly that’s the way of epilogues, and there was definitely some overlap, but I’m not sure we were ever really a tight unit. (See previous point, also.)
    – I wonder what the authors envisioned in terms of progress. Were we supposed to be roleplaying less so we could level up faster? Were we supposed to be getting into more fights? We really tried to keep things moving, and the RP we did have mainly served to strengthen the ties between our characters – which seems necessary if we’re to move forward as a party. If anything, I think we might have done more of it – but then it would take us another half dozen sessions to reach level 3!
    – I loved all the NPCS! So many of them, and so colorful, with their different interests and backstories. It was a really cool social environment to explore.
    – They definitely nailed the atmosphere of hardship! Losing our stuff. Having people hate us. The beatings. The rum-rations. The hard labor. All of that set a very appropriate Pirates of the Wordwood vibe!
    – RE Agency: I agree with Sean, but I also think it’s possible that we were thinking harder about our characters being real people than the game intended – instead of just jumping into fights or following orders. Eg Why would we attack an ‘enemy’ ship, when the leaders of our own ship are our real enemies? Purely because they have a sword to our backs? We’re somehow supposed to reconcile being slaves and being pirates – one which is stereotyped cowed and helpless, and one which is stereotyped fierce and freedom-loving. It’s hard to do that realistically, and on top of that we (being perhaps too-mature adults) each have our own backstory and motivations which biases us to act like real human beings (instead of ‘murder-hobos’). Were we supposed to embrace mutiny? ‘Pretend’ to be cowed, but secretly plan our revenge? We were on our way there with Scourge and Plugg (made it with Plugg!), but Barnabas didn’t seem that bad and he’s the main person a mutiny would target. Hard to know how to act and which direction to steer our characters in.

    Anyway. I would have loved to have had our party be more interconnected before the game started. And I would have loved us to have some motivation other than ‘freedom’, because freedom equals escape more easily than it equals mutiny – and if we had actually tried to escape it might have a) broken the scenario and b) left us with no reason to continue to stick together.

    Obviously, I loved our games. Sean’s an excellent GM and we had fantastic characters and players, but I wonder if there was a way to improve on the setting/scenario that would make it an easier experience. Regardless, I had a fantastic time! Thanks everyone for making this such a fun campaign!

  2. Adrienne

    (Also, I think Karen dropped another Neverending Story ‘quote’. It involved Falkor. Possibly the riding Vyv’s summoned sea-turtle like Falkor. Whatever it was, I loved it.)

  3. Rocky Moran

    First off, super appreciative of everyone’s contributions. From running this gargantuan campaign to staying enthusiastic about tying knots, being lookout, gutting fish or pumping bilges, everyone did a fun job. 🙂

    I think Karen and Adrienne were great with the RP (and, of course, Sean with the 19 different characters!!), while Meg and me were less sure of ourselves. Since the campaign wasn’t focused on combat and leveling, it was very reliant on being in character and that was kind of hard for us as (social anxiety prone) newcomers. This also created a challenge with mechanics in that I never quite felt comfortable with combat and rolls because I didn’t get drenched in it. That’s just how I learn though, and maybe I was a bit too enthusiastic about being able to jump into a campaign without really knowing what was involved on all sides, from RP to the dice mechanics.

    I’d say that some of my thoughts are less about how this was run (and our group) and more about the campaign itself. Sean removing the rum rations and skipping a lot of the ‘nothing happens’ days was a great fix–it took away some of the tedium that seemed to be intentionally designed into the game. Skull and Shackles may be a campaign designed for veterans who are tired of walking into the forest and slaying kobolds and want something more off the beaten path and story driven. The slow pace of leveling was definitely tough for me. I wanted new shiny spells and opportunities to remove goblins from the gene pool. After all of the whipping, kidnapping and beatings, I also had a hard time working up the urge to kill the ‘innocent’ crew of the other boat to put another notch in Scourge’s accomplishments–or to even become a pirate myself. I think that may be part of already going to work in real life everyday, doing things I’m not sure I “want” to do (but I’m certain that I want to eat, so I do them!), then going home: The last thing I fantasize about is feeding a poisoned egg to the folks in the English Department, who are just as put-upon as me. 🙂

    That said: All of the characters were remarkably well done. The adventure felt “real” and it was memorable. Of everything though, Ratliner was a huge highlight for me. It was amazing how well played that NPC was, and how much everyone grew our relationships with him and how we all pulled for him to stay alive (even Maddy, deep down…maybe…well, probably not, but you know what I mean).

    Thanks again, all, it was great!

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