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.
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.