Keep the following in mind when reading the example text!
- Esther is playing an ex-Herbalist.
- Barry plays a former Hunter.
- The PCs are in search of a powerful Relic, rumored to have restorative powers.
- Recently the party uncovered a parchment that detailed the item’s true location, somewhere on the far East side of the Geunant Forest, a wood known for having massive, ancient trees that allow little light through their humongous leaves.
You can read also the entire Example of Play as a single page here.
A character’s relevant background, history, and experiences may provide a potential benefit (or disadvantage) to certain situations. Similarly, previous events in the game may influence the impact of their actions, including negating the need for a save in some circumstances!
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Warden: “You’ve spent the better part of the morning cutting your way through the Geunant Forest, chopping past hanging vines and waist-high brambles. It is very easy to get lost here among the surrounding underbrush. To make matters worse the Sun is completely obscured by the thick overhead branches.”
Barry: “Does my Hunter background help at all?”
Warden: “Yes, though you have to stop every few minutes to survey your surroundings; progress is slow-going as a result. You continue heading East towards your destination.”
Warden: “After a few hours you exit into a small clearing in the wood, perfect for a short break. On the other end of the clearing is a small, visible path heading East. The entrance to the path is blocked by a large flowering plant sitting in a solitary sunbeam; it drips a green ichor from open, blue pods.”
Esther: “As a former Herbalist, do I recognize this plant?”
Warden: “Yes. You also knows that it is probably overgrown on account of the sunbeam drenching it in natural light.”
Esther: “What do the colors tell me about the plant? Is it poisonous? What about the green ichor?”
Warden: “You observe all these things, and reckon that yes it is very likely poisonous, as the petals closely resemble that of Wolfsbane.”
Barry: “All right, here’s the plan: I’ll climb up one of these trees above the plant and drape my blanket over it, blocking the sunlight. Hopefully that’ll make the pods close up!”
What if none of the PCs had any relevant experience or expertise?
- Had there been no PC with the Herbalist background, the Warden would likely have declared the PCs ignorant of the plant’s properties, and (hopefully) the players would try to learn more by asking questions and experimentation.
- If a PC had a tangential background (like the Hunter) the Warden could let the Fates decide and roll 1d6. The higher the roll, the more likely the PC would know something relevant or useful.
Cairn assumes that the characters live in a dangerous world where even the most minor interaction can become quite deadly. The players should therefore be encouraged to find non-violent ways to solve their problems. There are of course times where this is quite impossible, and it is up to the Warden to determine if a violent situation should be resolved through combat.
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Warden: “By late afternoon you finally break through the forest boundary. Spilling out of the treeline, you nearly step into a deep chasm splitting the forest in two. Finally, you have arrived at the God-Slip, a seemingly endless ravine with no bridge crossing it. Judging by the sheer rock walls on either side, climbing down would be extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, your quarry is likely located just across, where the cliffs meet the edge of the world. There is a small clearing nearby where you could set up camp, shrouded by a humongous Oak tree planted close to the chasm.”
Esther: “I think we should make camp before moving out. If we have to climb into or around this chasm, I’d rather have the light on our side!”
Barry: “Definitely. I wonder what the safest way to do it would be? Backs against the ravine?”
Warden: “Yes, unless of course something comes out of it!” Who’s on first watch, by the way?”
Esther: “I’ll take first shift.”
Warden: “You make camp and eat one of your rations. Halfway through the first shift, you hear a snapping of twigs coming from just to the West of the campsite, back towards the Geunant Forest. What do you do?”
Esther: “I’d like to kick my comrade awake so I’m not alone in this, quietly nodding my head towards the direction of the noise and making the symbol for silence.”
Warden: “You do that, and he sits up just as a pair of horrid red eyes become visible behind the underbrush.”
Barry: “What do we know about the creatures here?”
Warden: “You know that whatever creatures may be stalking this forest at night are very likely dangerous. You will likely not have time to chat with whatever is about to come out of there.”
Esther: “I’m prepared to fight, then. I stand up and draw my sword, ready for whatever comes.”
Some games rely on “Initiative” to determine who goes first when combat begins. In Cairn, the PCs must each make a DEX save in order to act before their opponents. After that round has been concluded, the two “sides” each take turns attacking, their individual members acting in whatever order they wish. In some cases a DEX save may not be necessary, especially when the PC or NPC was on guard or ready for an attack.
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Warden: “An Elk-like creature with glowing-red eyes explodes from the darkness of the wood opposite the party’s campsite. A sea of mist flows off the creature’s body as it runs directly at you, Barry. Esther was at the ready, so she gets to go first.”
Barry: “What about me?”
Warden: “You’ll need to make a DEX save to see if you are able to ready yourself in time to react before the creature.”
Barry: “I rolled 1d20, and the result is a 17. Ouch.”
Warden: “Yes, that’s a fail. Esther will go first, then the creature, and finally Barry. After that you both will go again in any order you wish, then the creature, and so on.”
A PC or NPC should save only if one or more of the following conditions are met:
- When the outcome of an action is uncertain.
- When something is at risk (a life, a threatening danger, etc.).
- When making a critical damage save during combat.
Saves can happen both in an out of combat. A save is almost never required when a PC or NPC is under attack, as attacks hit automatically. However, there are situations in which the fiction might dictate that an attack is automatically unsuccessful or impossible.
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Esther: “Do we know anything about this creature?”
Warden: “Yes - it’s a Blood Elk, which is a sort of killer deer born from great greed or envy. They are pretty powerful, from what you’ve heard.”
Esther: “Spooky! In that case, I want to use my action to help drag my comrade out of the way, maybe towards that Oak tree you mentioned earlier.”
Warden: “You were already standing and ready to go, so I’m going to rule that this just happens, too quickly for the creature to change its trajectory. You manage to pull Barry just to the East of the now-trampled campsite, close to the Oak tree located just steps away from the God-Slip. Now, it’s the Blood Elk’s turn. It plows through the space Barry once occupied, wrecking the campfire. It swings wildly around, nearly careening off the cliff-face in the process. It’s eyes glow a hateful violet as it turns back towards the both of you. Barry, it’s your turn. You should note that you have only your hip-knife for combat, as everything else is still back at the camp. Worse, the darkness has impeded your ability to see more than its flaming red eyes. Use 1d4 when rolling damage.”
Barry: “Screaming, I launch my dagger straight at the creature. I roll 1d4 and the result is a 1.”
Warden: “The knife flies expertly from your hand, slicing through the misty air just above the creature, landing a few feet behind it. The beast whinnies in anger, then crouches as it prepares to charge again. It’s your side’s turn now. Go in any order.”
Esther: “I have an idea: the creature previously charged at Barry, right? So it seems reasonable that it would do so again. What if I tossed one end of my rope to Barry, and then looped it to a nearby tree? Then if it comes close enough try and trample him again, he could just… leap off the cliff? Holding the rope for support, of course.”
Barry: “Uh… That sounds like a plan, I guess. Yes, let’s do it!”
Why didn’t Barry need to save in order to successfully wrap the rope around the tree?
On a turn, a PC can attempt any action; a save is only required if one of the conditions listed above are met. It seemed reasonable that Barry would be able to make a mad dash around the tree (which was only a few feet away) with the rope without much danger. Had he tried to run close to the Blood Elk or done something equally uncertain or dangerous, he would have been required to save.
If two opponents are both attempting to overcome the other, whoever is most at risk should save. The Warden should make a consistent ruling in this regard, and make sure it is explained clearly to the players before a risk is taken if possible.
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Warden: “Esther, you toss one end of your rope to Barry, who quickly loops the rope around the Oak tree, then rushes towards the cliff-face on the other side, screaming at the creature to charge at him. Esther takes point as a sort of ballast in case he falls. Barry, as you are in position to react, I’m going to allow you a sort of out of combat reaction.”
Barry: “All right, if it comes near me I’d like to stand near the cliff edge, ready to leap out of the way.”
Warden: “Understood. It is now the Blood Elk’s turn, and obviously it’s still very angry at you, Barry. Raising its devilish hooves, the beast charges towards you once again. You leap off the cliff at the last second, holding onto the rope with all your might. The Blood Elk attempts to halt its attack the moment it sees its target falling. It makes a DEX save to see if it can successfully stop. Ack, it rolled a 20, and goes tumbling off the cliff and into the vast dark below.”
Why didn’t the Blood Elk make an attack roll, as the combat rules imply? The attack was considered possible, but very dangerous as well. Had the creature used a ranged attack or was a trained melee attacker it would have been far less risky to attack Barry. Unfortunately it was a beast, and only capable of running people down with its sharp hooves.
Why did the Blood Elk make the save instead of Barry, who was also at risk?
In this example, the Blood Elk was far more at risk than its human opponent, because:
- As an enthralled beast, it was likely not capable of creative thinking or advanced problem solving.
- One of its primary features is its relative bulk and speed, and it is likely that these properties would make a sudden stop quite difficult.
- Accordingly, there were no situational or mechanical benefits that could provide any advantage to the Blood Elk in this scenario.
Conversely, Barry was the least at risk of the two:
- As a former hunter, he had already firmly established his ability to do things of this nature.
- Esther had tied the rope around a tree, using herself as a ballast. This provided a clear situational advantage.
If Barry had been injured or had less time to prepare, it would be conceivable to ask for a STR save to see if he could hold on to the rope.
Occasionally a dangerous action, trap, surprise attack, or cataclysmic event will cause grave injury or even death. Typically the Warden declares the type of damage (e.g. STR/DEX/WIL) followed by the amount lost (either in terms of specific amounts, or a variable dice roll). It can be difficult to determine exactly what kind of damage to dole out, and how much.
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Warden: “After your encounter with the Blood Elk, you return to camp and try to catch as much sleep as they can. By daybreak both of you are awake and ready to continue on your journey.”
Esther: “Right. The question is, how do we cross the God-Slip? Are there any bridges at our level?”
Warden: “Not that you can see. In the far North a copse of trees hugs the ravine and partially blocks your way; you’d need to explore a bit to see past them. A few hundred meters South however you can see a small shelf jutting out from inside the ravine, probably fifty feet down. It makes a sort of “L” shape, getting pretty close to the other side. It might require a little work to shimmy onto, but it seems doable.”
Barry: “I say, let’s go for the shelf. Still go that rope and pitons?”
Esther: “Yeah, I don’t see a better way across. Let’s go.”
Warden: “After a half hour’s walk along the ravine, you finally arrive at a spot just above the shelf. Deep within the chasm you can see a blanket of early morning fog, and just beneath it the glitter of rushing water.”
Barry: “Are there any large stones near the edge? I’d like to hammer a piton into it, then loop our rope through. I can lower myself safely into the ravine and onto the shelf.”
Warden: “You find a large stone along the edge and hammer the piton into it.”
Barry: “Great, I lower myself down, then light up my lantern. Esther will follow, I assume.”
Warden: “Carefully planting your feet on the shelf, you test the rope and call up to Esther, who climbs down. After she has arrived safely on the shelf, you survey your surroundings. The shelf appears to zigzag down the inside of the ravine, nearly to the bottom. The sound of rushing water below fills the ravine. Do you leave the rope behind for the return journey?”
Esther: “Unfortunately, yes. I’m also going to mark our location on my map. Who knows if it’ll make a difference, but just in case… OK, let’s get out of here.”
Warden: “You move carefully along the shelf, digging your fingers into the cliff-face for safety. After an arduous fifteen minutes, you finally arrive at a small waterfall blocking the path forward. Icy water flows down the slippery rock surface and into a small basin below. The rock wall is slick with moss here, and you will likely slip if you try to step through. What do you do?”
Barry: “Is there another way forward?”
Warden: “Not from what you can tell. You could try and climb down, but it is quite dark and likely even more dangerous.”
Barry: “OK, I think I’ll try my luck with the waterfall, thank you. Esther, can you hold on to my bag as I step through?”
Esther: “And have you take me with you? No thanks!”
Warden: “You’ll have to make a DEX save to see if you can cross over the slick surface without slipping.”
Barry: “OK, I hand Esther my lantern so I can use both hands…. and I rolled a 14, a fail. Damn.”
Warden: “You slip and tumble down the waterfall and into the water-filled basin below, smacking your hand hard into the side of the pool at the same time. You lose 1d4 DEX damage, and you are unable to properly squeeze items in your dominant hand. It’s almost completely dark, but you can still make out the light of your comrade’s torch above.”
Which Ability should non-combat damage impact?
- If the injury affects their physical strength or health, subtract from STR. This does not trigger a critical damage save. STR is a reflection of a PC’s health, and should reflect that in subtle but interesting ways: perhaps requiring a save where none would have been necessary before.
- If the injury impacts their ability to move, react quickly, or their fine motor skills, subtract from DEX. This frequently is paired with an in-fiction impact as well; broken fingers would impact a PC’s ability to pick locks, for example.
- If the spirit, willpower, or determination of a PC has been impacted, subtract from WIL. Especially helpful to consider during magical or superficial injuries. A PC whose soul was burnt by arcane energy may need to make a WIL save to read Spellbooks, for example.
A few considerations:
- An injury could take on multiple facets: Deprivation may accompany STR loss from poison, for instance. Provide a potential solution to overcoming the illness, as well.
- Damage should happen as a consequence of failing a save. Do not make players save after-the-fact.
- Fictional injuries are just as powerful as direct mechanical damage. DEX loss will have an impact on a character’s reflexes and speed, but a broken leg may prevent a character from being able to move at all!
The realities of the game’s fiction should always take precedence over mechanics. Occasionally the details of a particular scene (such as a PC or NPC’s knowledge or abilities) will render a mechanic or rule obsolete. If a short-legged thief attempts to leap across an impossible gap, there is no save. They simply fall into the abyss. Likewise if that same thief were to try to knock unconscious an oblivious & defenseless guard, it just happens. There is no need for a roll.
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Barry: “Well, that was a bad idea! How exactly am I going to get back up? Unless… hey, how much can I see into the darkness below?”
Warden: “There isn’t much light here, but something glints in the darkness beneath you. If you had more light, you could perhaps make out what it is.”
Esther: “Why don’t I toss him down my lantern. Does that require a roll?”
Warden: “Normally, no. But remember his hand is still somewhat injured from the fall. I’m going to say that he has to roll, since he’s also the most at risk.”
Barry: “I rolled a 3. Finally!”
Warden: “Barry, you catch it without issue. Now you get a decent view of the chasm beneath. You see a series of small waterfalls, basins and protruding shelves going all the way down to a rushing river on the bottom. There is even a narrowing of the ravine itself about 50 feet South where you could conceivably leap over to the other side!”
Barry: “Ha! I knew this was a good idea. But how do we get down there?”
Warden: “You can actually slide down the waterfall pouring out from the small pool you’re already standing in… it’s a short drop, so you aren’t in any great danger, even with that hand of yours.”
Esther: “And how exactly do I get down there, though? Wait, I’ve got an idea. I can see him, right? What if I were to jump…“
Barry: “…Am I supposed to catch you? With which hand, exactly?”
Esther: “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll be my landing pad.”
Warden: “You should know that you aren’t in any terrible danger here since you’re actually aiming for the pool, but that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free. You’ll need to hold on to the wall with both hands, and it should be a bumpy ride. Something could pop loose.”
Esther: “OK, my DEX isn’t great, but here goes anyways… and I rolled an 13, a fail. See Barry? You’re not the only one with bad luck around here.”
Warden: “You make it, but the journey down wasn’t fun. One item from your pack is knocked loose, so I’m going to roll a Fate die… hey, a lucky 5! OK, you get to choose what falls out.”
Esther: “If I get to choose what I lose though… how about my remaining torch? Everything else is just too important, and we still have a lantern and oil.”
Warden: “You hear the small metal shard bounce against the ravine wall, ending in a splash as it lands in the flowing water beneath.”
In Cairn, character growth is preferable over advancement. This means that although a PC will change, they may not necessarily get better with time. Growth occurs through both mechanical means (such as Scars), as well as through events happening solely in the fiction.
The Warden should consider the following when awarding non-mechanical growth to PCs:
- Growth should be tied to a specific experience occurring in the fiction.
- It is more important for a PC to grow more interesting than more skilled or capable.
- PCs experience growth not necessarily because they’ve gotten more skill and experience, but because they are changed in a significant way.
- There should be opportunities for growth & change everywhere, especially when a PC puts themselves at risk.
- Growth occurs while things are happening, not just after the PC has rested.
- Training & Specialization should be tied to quests and character growth as much as possible.
A Few Examples of Training & Specialization:
- Two days of study under a former royal archer has taught you how to fire arrows more effectively. Attacks with a longbow are enhanced.
- After two weeks’ of daily practice with the Blade of Gwoed, you feel confident enough to use it the deadly weapon in combat. Critical Damage: target loses a limb or is disemboweled (your choice).
- Three days’ worth of study under the tutelage of a skilled warrior has taught you how to never be surprised. You no longer need to make a DEX save before combat (unless the Warden says otherwise).
- Five nights of intense study with the Book of Curses has given you an edge in battle. If you insult an opponent before combat, all of their attacks against you and your friends are impaired.
- After training with the Mourning Monks of Es’ta, you can now speak with the dead. You are deprived afterwards.
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Warden: “Slowly you descend into the near-absolute darkness of the ravine. Your lantern is bright enough to allow safe travel, but also acts as a shining beacon to anyone or anything that might be down here. Fortunately it seems that you are largely alone, at least for now. Eventually the roar of the river below begins to drown out your voices.”
Esther: “Ugh, I have a bad feeling about this. How far down do we have to go?”
Warden: “You’re just above the riverbed, actually. Carefully placing your feet onto the slick surface, you hold your lantern high and watch as the water glitters, almost in response. You are only a few dozen feet from the shelf you saw earlier as well.”
Esther: “How dangerous do we think it would be to cross that way?”
Warden: “You’ll have to jump. The water rushes right beneath, so you’d have a soft landing. The current looks strong as well.
Esther: “What did you mean before when you said that the river glittered as if in response? I am not prepared to deal with intelligent rivers.”
Warden: “You’re not totally sure, but it looked like there might be something alive in there. As a former herbalist, you already know about bioluminescent plants.”
Barry: “Plants? We can handle plants. Why don’t we just wade through the river here?”
Esther: “Hmm that’s might be a good idea. Wait, what about hidden rocks and such?”
Warden: “You could try, certainly. There don’t appear to be a lot of rocks poking out of here that you can see, either.”
Esther: “I’ll go first this time. You hold the lantern up with your good hand, Barry.”
Barry: “Good call. I’ll yell out if something leaps out of the river and tries to eat you, too.”
Warden: “You step into the rushing river. It pulls on your legs, but otherwise you feel strong enough to cross without aide. Slowly you begin your journey; with each step you can see the colorful plants - algae, perhaps - glowing and moving in response to your footsteps. It might also just be the light.”
Esther: “Uh… Can I feel them?”
Warden: “Only the wetness of the river. Perhaps a distant tickling but that could be the reeds. They seem to react to your every movement.”
Esther: “Interesting. If I’m not in any danger though I think I’ll press. Does our light allow us to see across the whole river yet?”
Warden: “Nearly. You are about halfway across when Barry sees something moving in the waters ahead. It is jet-black and sleek, like an eel. It is also around 5 feet long.”
Barry: “I warn her to pull back.”
Esther: “Can I outrun this thing?”
Warden: “Hmm… You’d have to make a DEX save.”
Esther: “Sorry Barry, I want to see if I can outrun it. We’ll figure out how to get you across once I’m on dry land again. OK, here goes… Yes, a 2! I charge across.”
Warden: “You increase your pace dramatically, sprinting across the water in big splashes. With each leap, your foot disrupts the colorful creatures within. The water begins to roil violently around your ankles. Ahead, the eel-like creature darts away as if in response. You finally arrive at the other bank, the river’s water bubbling behind you. As you leap out of the water, some of the bioluminescent substance sticks to your right ankle. Standing up on the dry ground, you seem unable to kick it off. It doesn’t hurt you or anything, but feels like its been painted to your ankle.”
Esther: “Damn! What does it feel like? Also, what do I see on this side of the river?”
Warden: “It feels a bit wet, but otherwise like a tattoo on your skin. Like it’s a part of you. You are standing on a near-identical bank as the opposite side; you’ll have to explore a bit to learn more.”
Esther: “I suppose I can ignore this for now, if it isn’t hurting me or anything. Barry, how are you going to cross these swirling eel-infested waters? Maybe off that ledge further down?”
Barry: “That works. How many torches do you have left? I don’t leave you in the dark when I head down there. You could also follow me down a bit, though the light might not be perfect.”
Esther: “I’m all out, unfortunately. But maybe if I follow you I can do something on this end to help you jump that ledge?”
Warden: “You march in parallel on either sides of the fast-moving river the light from Barry’s lamp just barely illuminating your way. Esther, you are having an especially difficult time as you have to hug the riverbank or avoid stepping into shadows unknown.”
Esther: “If I’m close to the river, I’d like to study it some more. Do I still see the swirling bioluminescent plant things?”
Warden: “Yes, and they seem to be following you. Interestingly, the light from their movement is almost enough to see the into the river.”
Barry: “That’s good. Maybe now you can keep an eye out for any more eels? What about me? What do I see as I trod down this godforsaken ravine?”
Warden: “The walls on your side of the river narrow a bit as you get closer to the raised shelf you spied earlier; in fact you begin to feel quite squeezed-in. Fortunately you are scrawny enough to just make it to the shelf, which completely blocks your way forward.”
Esther: “What can I see from my side of the river? Am I still forced to hug the riverbank?”
Warden: “The ravine isn’t nearly as narrow from your end, meaning it would be easy to continue on forward from where you are, were you to move away from the light of course. But more importantly, you can see that the shelf used to extend across the river, as there is a mirrored shelf sticking out from the other side as well. There is a massive gap between, though. Perhaps it collapsed at some point in the past? Anyway, Barry can try and climb the shelf or enter the river and move around it. At least this time there isn’t a slimy waterfall to get around!
Barry: “Assuming I can easily scale this thing, I’d say: let’s go for it.”
Warden: “You mount it with ease after placing your lamp on top and then pulling yourself up. Now you just have to get across.”
Barry: “Quick question, what is the water like in the exact center of the river where the gap is?”
Warden: “It’s a bit difficult to tell from here, but if you move closer you might get a better look. Esther however has been watching the river all the while, and can see that the waters within are moving quite rapidly, in a circular formation.”
Esther: “These are eels right? I bet they’re eels. What are my bio-friends doing right now?”
Warden: “Looking down into the waters near the shore you see that all of the bioluminescent creatures have fled, almost as if in fear of this part of the river.”
Esther: “Hmm… alright, I’ve got a theory. Barry, you should hold the lantern between the gap in the “bridge” and see what happens.”
Barry: “Uh, OK. I carefully walk to the middle of the river on the “bridge”, then lay down, hanging my lantern over the edge - but only just. I want to be as safe as possible here.”
Warden: “The moment you lower it, a slick black eel leaps into the air and snaps at the lantern with needle-like teeth. You’re quick enough to save it, though. The eel splashes back into the water.”
Barry: “Wow! That was scary. I’m guessing I’ll need to save in order to jump across, right?”
Warden: “Unless you’ve got a better idea, yes.”
Esther: “I have one. Hey Barry, why don’t you extinguish that light?”
Barry: “Done. Now what?”
Warden: “You switch off the lantern. Blinking in the darkness, your eyes slowly being to adjust. Suddenly you see a light beginning to glimmer on the far-off shore where Esther is standing. It’s her ankle; it is lit up like a candle!”
Esther: “Wait, can I make light now? Am I a human torch?”
Warden: “In complete darkness, yes. Let’s hope you don’t to go sneaking around in the dark anytime soon.”
Barry: “Well, this is cool. So the eels like the light, right? This gives me an idea…“