Saturday, August 29, 2009


Ten Books

I ended up tagged by a number of people for one of thse Facebook meme things. Since this one revolves around books, I decided to go ahead and respond-- and, of course, use it for my blog post. The question is, what are the ten books which changed your life? I've posted a little before on authors who wrote things that deeply affected me, but I think there's a real difference between that and singling out books that changed things for me. I'll avoid rpg books for the moment, as that's another more narrow topic. At risk of repeating some things I earlier posted, here's what I've come up with-

1. Lord of Light (Roger Zelazny) The first sci-fi book I really read that went in a philosophical direction. Or at least went that way and I actually followed what was going on. I always had a fascination for mythology grow up-- I had the two D'Aulaires illustrated books of myths and used to pore over those. Of course I was a DnD player early on so I got the rest of my references for that from the early Gods, Demigods and Heroes supplements. So I had some of that in my head when I hit this book-- a story in which a colonized planet is ruled by a group who have adapted the trappings of the Hindu pantheon and established that metaphysics as the basis of their control.

Of course you don't know exactly that at first and the pieces slowly come together. But the process of uncovering that also echoes the competition between other Eastern philosophies of the time. I don't think I can disentangle all of that. But it sent my head spinning- and really made me interested in the impact of culture, myth and technology. I'd say a good portion of the reason I went down the path of Anthropology as a major in college was at least some echo of thinking about that. That and it seemed the most logical major for application to gaming-- that's how it looks in retrospect.

2. Story (Robert McKee) Like any aspiring writer, I've bought a lot of writing books. Some have been better than others. But most are either too concrete or too fluffy, filled will dictums or stupid exercises. McKee's book is the first that actually addressed the needs and structure of a story. Mind you he's talking in the particular context of a movie script, but I think what he has to say applies to most fictional narrative. He's got me looking at things with a much more discerning eye. I think that's the best kind of learning book-- one not necessarily that gets you to change everything, but one that give you new tools to look at an analyze what you're doing.

3. Popular Culture (Albert Goldbarth) I had little or no experience with poetry up until graduate school. I didn't care for rhymed poetry and free verse left me irritated most of the time. The sole exception to that was Richard Braughtigan's stuff and even parts of that struck me as a little too hippy-dippy for my taste. Then, of course, I had to teach poetry in grad school so I did a crash course in modern stuff. I found some things I liked, but even those really felt distant-- as if I was enjoying the artifice more than the actual poem. It wasn't until I hit Albert Goldbarth, with his wild long lines, his contemporary subject matter, and his solid and concrete writing that I felt any kind of kinship with the art. I love his stuff, even his worst stuff. His was the first book that managed to elicit a serious emotional reaction from me. That book has too many poems that do that to me. I measure every other book of poems against that and most don't measure up.

4. Ubik (Philip K. Dick) I've mentioned before that I came to PK Dick by way of Blade Runner, or rather his original novel. It would be a little while after that before I would pick up more of his books. Some were good, others were a little off. I didn't care for the short stories which were usually the ones I ended up with. Then I read Ubik. I like meta-fiction, and even more I like books which mess with your sense of reality. Dick's notorious for that in his novels and this one handles it the best. We get a rich deep background that ends up thrown out the window early on as the situation continually changes. I think this was the first book where I absolutely bought into the tricks which the writers was playing. Mind you, those devices have become more commonly used now-- the unreliable narrator and the unreliable nature of reality (The Usual Suspects, Momento, etc) but that really threw me. It still stands in my mind as the best example and sparked a life-long fascination with those kinds of ideas. Unfortunately I've read and seen more bad versions of that than good, but I still love it and it certainly affects my thinking about stories and narratives.

5. The Place of Dead Roads (William S. Burroughs) I was a Laurie Anderson fan in high school. At a record store I found a two album set of her performances, along with another performance artist and William S. Burroughs. The Burroughs pieces were strange and funny- and he seemed like an accessible like of humorist, perhaps like Perleman or Thurber. So eventually I ordered a random book of his-- in the days before Amazon or anything like that, when you couldn't really track down obscure authors-- not that he was obscure, just not as readily found in stores. I don't think I can properly explain how much this book freaked me out, coming into it as unprepared as I was. If you've read Burroughs, you may know what I mean. I won't say I liked it, but I did read more of his stuff and more than anything it opened my eyes to a whole class of really weird writing. It is more of a visceral reaction that's stuff with me...a little hard to explain.

6. Moomintroll Midwinter (Tove Jansson) I was a pretty voracious reader as a kid, between bouts of drawing maps for dungeons and rolling up random characters for games I'd never run or play in. I had a pretty clear image about what “kids lit” was like-- a few goofy ideas and a simple premise. But this book was the first I read that created a completely new fantastic world: whole and complete. I loved it for its internal logic, for the fantastic characters and the strange sense of not all that much happening. If I love world building as a creative exercise now, I owe at least some of that inspiration to this book.

7. The Continental Op (Dashell Hammett) I'm pretty sure Gene recommend it to me. I'd read some detective fiction before this, mostly a great deal of Agatha Christie. But this was so different, so anti-hero, so well-written and- as stupid as it sounds- so real that it really affected me. It broke me of a lot of the conventions I had about heroes and heroism, and made me much more affectionate for the reality of the ordinary. I haven't read these stories in a long time, but I remember the flawed character as one that stuck with me-- making hard decisions and sometimes not measuring up to the task.

8. Dictionary of the Khazars (Milorad Pavic) Another books that weaves together wild imagination, made up history and a strange blending of the mythic with the real. I love that stuff and this book showed me that it could be done in a non-standard format. I came to Borges and Howard Waldrop after I read this, but all of those are of a set-- people who approach telling you a compelling story from a different direction. There's a sense that all of the pieces of greater stories are buried in what they tell you and you have to connect those dots. For me, that's what a rich role-playing game does and it echoed what I wanted from that.

9. Beginning Logic (E.J. Lemmon) In college I did pretty badly in my math classes. I came in thinking about doing something with physics, but then I hit pre-calculus and suddenly I just couldn't figure it out. I went to tutorials, I dropped and retook classes until finally I was able to just barely pass. And so a Liberal Arts student was born. Eventually I realized I'd have to take another math class-- then I spotted a Mathematical Logic course. My sister Cat ended up taking it with me as well and we really loved it. I loved breaking arguments and propositions down to their basics and figuring out how to order them. I still try to do that today when I approach things. I actually have some problems with the whole set of Rhetoric as argument forms, because at base I try to read them as proofs. This was the text we used for that class and I still have it on my bookshelf in the other room.

10.Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (Ernst Briesach) I liked history as a subject in high school and college, but for some reason it never occurred to me that it could be a major or a real field of study. I had an impression of it as a fairly linear approach, with some evidentary analysis and a pretty limited set of things. I'd read history growing up-- Bruce Catton's books on the civil war, some stuff on Rome and so on, but none of it grabbed me. When I was studying in Cairo, I saw this book on a shelf and for some reason picked it up. Until then I hadn't really realized that there existed a concept like Historiography, the study of how history itself is told. I didn't really realize that there could be competing narratives, directions in approaches and a strongly political and social bent to the narratives. I knew that history had been done differently in the past, but I never made the connection. For a person essentially always writing histories, mind you about fictional world, this was a huge revelation. I really made me a much more careful observer of what a particular story about something says about the context and the agenda of the storyteller.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Notes from Campaign Prep: Black Company/Planescape & Libri Vidicos

An interesting recycling day-- I found some notes and ideas I think I sent on to Gene a little while before I began the ongoing Libri Vidicos campaign and the Black Company/Planescape short term campaign I ran. I wrote these back in Jan of '06. Interesting to see what I was thinking before I started to run-- and that I gave up on GURPS once again. I may try to come back to comment on these notes a little later.

So I’ve started thinking a little bit about the next campaigns I have coming up. There are three I have to start planning seriously for:

Planescape/Black Company: The Mutants and Masterminds game was set up as an eight session story and it looks like it will come in just about on schedule. One of the players in that game has a special fondness for the old Planescape setting and I like it too. (I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but essentially it is a cross-planar setting with a strange city at the heart of the worlds). I decided that I wanted to try my hand at a d20 game, no holds barred. I’m letting people draw from whatever d20 sourcebooks and materials they have. It will probably be messy, but most of the group has played d20 already and I figure since it is the most “popular” system out there right now, I should probably try it at least once. Since I’m shooting for eight sessions with this as well, it isn’t such a commitment.

Last Christmas I received a copy of the Black Company sourcebook. I’d only ever read one or two of these books, but I liked the general idea here: a game based around a mercenary company, dealing with the issues of campaigning, recruiting, and planning. It is fairly messy and has interesting rules for critical wounds that leave permanent effects. I still wanted magical healing and such available, but liked the potential consequence of heading into combat heedlessly.

What I’ve told the players is that they will make up two characters, a primary and an “alt”. This is to give the mercenary company a larger group of characters (without my having to make up every NPC). It also allows me to emphasize the fact that combat and warfare will be deadly. Plus the group can split up and everyone can still participate, albeit in different roles. They will start as part of a merc company involved in the planar wars. The company itself has a long history which has long been forgotten. There are a few relics remaining, but people aren’t sure of their significance. If the company originally came from one world, it is no longer. Instead I expect the group to be from many different worlds and of many different races. I’ve told them that the most extreme alignments are out though. Since most of the players have played d20 before, most have one or two character concepts they weren’t able to do in a long term campaign that I hope they will explore in this one.

I have a few ideas in my head right now about what I want to do and accomplish in the eight sessions of the campaign.

1. Kill or grievously wound at least a third of the total PCs. I want to try to mix this up, from the deaths that are totally ignominious to those that stand out in glory.

2. I want to start the campaign out “in medias res”. They will already be involved in a pitched battle that is not going well for them. The overall commander will split the company into three parts. Each will obtain one of the relics of the company to maintain. The PC group will be caught in a tough situation that they’ll have to fight out of and there will be evidence of treachery from their employer (establishing a plot line for them to follow if they wish). The main portion of the company will be lost and the PC group will obtain another part one of the three (or more, haven’t decided) company relics. The other third of the company will end up missing, presumed dead.

3. At least two of the sessions should take place in Sigil, the mysterious city at the center of the multiverse. It is colorful, has lots of supporting material for it and there are a large set of well defined philosophical factions that can be used for plot movement and direction. Plus it can serve as a nice break from travel and campaigning.

4. Some of the game should be abstract planning—setting them up a situation (i.e. take this castle in this difficult location within X days), telling them their resources (manpower, money, food, etc) and then letting them chew on the situation to come up with a creative solution. When actual operations are carried out, I can have a few small combats to determine important points, such as when the situation changes on them.

5. At the end of the last Steampunk character, Barry’s character sacrificed himself to shut a gateway through which a horde of demons were about to come. He was stuck on the other side. We’d talked about him running that character in this game, having lost his memory but trying to find his way home. I’d still like to do something with that here, but as an NPC. It would be nice closure if they could get him back to his own world.

6. One of the plot points should be about the mercenary company’s own history. I was thinking that one of the relics might be the ledger of all those who had been a part of the company. At a certain point, when the PCs are recruiting, they fill in the final space in this book and something is revealed about the original purpose of the company. There are two ways this can go: either they were destined to fight a great evil and forgot or they were intended to release a great evil. In the case of the latter, it would be an interesting moral choice to put the players in.

7. One point I’ve been considering is having the major plot point revolve around the return of a lord of evil. I borrowed this from a Planescape adventure where Orcus is trying to return. I’d like the big reveal and surprise for the campaign to be that it is the Thonak, the Sauron-stand-in from my first really long term and epic campaign. I don’t know exactly how I want to play that though.

8. Ideally there will be some fallout from this campaign into the next Steampunk campaign, but it should not be overwhelming. It would be nice if I have some details that I can pull in later in that, more long term campaign (or at least I hope it will be a long term campaign…).

OK, so that’s what I’ve got for that. I think I can get about eight sessions out of that and be able to tell a satisfying story in that time.

Steampunk: The bigger challenge comes after that. These two mini-campaigns have been fill-ins until I get ready to run the sequel to the Steampunk game. I’m more than a little nervous about that for a couple of reasons. That campaign went about as well as any I’ve ever done. Everyone enjoyed their characters, the story, the NPCs and the setting. It would be very easy for any follow up to that to be a letdown. But that’s another issue. Here’s what’s in my head today. It is pretty scattershot…more of an impression than a solid sense of the campaign.

I expect I’ll do the campaign in Gurps again. I know it best and all of the players have a strong command of it. I have some problems with the magic system, but those I can get around. My major modifications for the previous campaign were: the ability to make up to a half move and attack or a full move and count it as an All-Out attack, the Unlimited Mana system from Pyramid, spending additional fatigue to cast faster, and a slightly modified system of combat styles and maneuvers. Most of that worked well with one exception, the weapon styles. I’d done twenty-four different styles, each based on a particular region or philosophy. To quote my write up:

“A Weapon Style is a skill. If a style has several classes of weapons it can be used with, a style skill must be bought separately for each class (the exception is knife which is included under broadsword for those styles). You purchase styles like physical skills. A character’s skill in a weapon style may not exceed his skill in the base weapon.

Each style has five “specialty” maneuvers that the character may use based on that style’s skill roll. Note that a style may also include Strike, Parry and Feint separate maneuvers; these are as the standard moves, but putting them as elements allows the character to advance them as maneuvers. Styles are never used with All-Out Attacks. A character may raise the level of an individual maneuver above that of the style. The cost for this can be found in GURPs Compendium I (page 164); characters may not raise a maneuver more than +3 above the Style. One side note, each style is bought as an individual weapon for purposes of Enhanced Parry.”
I thought this was pretty good idea. The standard MA rules require the player to spend a lot of points to get an additional effect. This requires less. Plus, it gives players a cheaper way to raise up certain maneuvers—removing some of the problem of topping out the points for their weapon skill and having to contemplate spending 8 or 16 points just to get a +1. The problem was that despite having all of this cool stuff, most players rarely used their weapon styles. I don’t think anyone invested in individual maneuvers to get an edge. I’m thinking that when I redo the styles I’m going to reduce them to about twelve basic styles. Each one will have one or two maneuvers that they begin with and another six or seven the character can choose from to get their pool of five. This will allow some customization right out of the gate. I might have a modest point cost for the character to add another maneuver from the choices to their style after the game begins.

The other thing I’m thinking about I may have already mentioned to you. I lose track. I’ve been looking at a lot of d20 and related game materials and one of the things I like are the little “feats” and “class abilities” that you can get. I was thinking of trying to come up with a list of micro-advantages that players could take. I’m not precisely sure what that would entail. But this plays into another thing I want to do. I’d like to build a chain of smaller advantages that eventually result in the purchase of a larger advantage. OK, unclear to be and I wrote that. Let’s take a couple of the classics: High Pain Threshold. It costs ten points to get no penalty from damage taken. You could have two steps that lead up to that: the first for three points would reduce any penalty by -2, the second for six points would halve any penalty (round up), and then you could eventually buy the full advantages for ten points. You could do the same with something like Combat Reflexes which has several discrete elements. This has two purposes. First it allows a little more customization for the characters. Second it allows players to more reasonably purchase advantages after the start of the campaign—something especially important for the kind of campaign I’m envisioning.

I should also say I’m thinking about how to do a set of abilities based on each of the magic schools. Other systems have some ways or creating a magical rogue or magical warrior without having them buy spells and such. I was thinking of a set up knacks, say five, for each college. Players have to buy them in the order given. They would be fairly limited, so they wouldn’t have the crazy costs of knacks. I’d try to balance the costs out with the other way to buy them (one college magery, a few prerequisites, and the spells themselves…). Just a side thought.

Anyhow the premise of the game will be that they are all young characters arriving for their first year at a strange fantastic school known as the Libri Vidicos. I’m imagining sixteen+ year old characters. I know that Kenny plans to run the child of Sherri’s character from the previous campaign (in part because he liked the NPC she ended up marrying). Dave Enyeart will probably run the adopted son of his character, who has the reincarnated soul of his best friend (who died in the last battle of the campaign). But that’s just the first things on the table.

1. I will be stealing from Harry Potter obviously, but it won’t be a purely magical school. I also plan to lift/borrow theme from some other fantasy novels I’ve read with children in chantries or like places (Earthsea I think has this in the first book). There’s a d20 supplement called the Redhurst Academy of Magic I picked up. It is OK, but it does have some nice ideas for developing staff positions and characters. The anime/manga Revolutionary Girl Utena is also strongly in my mind. In that series there are a lot of unanswered questions about the institution itself and rather than being a refuge place (as Hogwarts is to an extent). Plus there’s a strange upper class “student council” and a series of mysterious duels and challenges that hint at a larger, darker purpose.

2. I picture that this school has existed for several hundred years. That can work in the timeline I’ve established. There was a several hundred year gap between the game before last and the one just ended. I might be able to tie its creation into the events of the former campaign. I also made sure to mention the school at several key points towards the end of the game. I hope that will reduce the “where did that come from question?” I may be the only one worrying about that though.

3. My first thought is that the student body is made up of about 50% students from noble homes and families who have managed to petition and pay extremely well for entry. Still the selection process even for those is hidden. Even the highest families can find themselves rejected. I also like the idea of the school requiring parents and students not to talk about being accepted. I imagine a strange conversational tactic where parents defer questions about their children’s school in such a way as to suggest that they are—in fact—attending the Libri Vidicos. Actually if I do a set of prologue games, that might make a nice device. I imagine that the other 50% of the students are hand-picked by the instructors. Their parents would be charged according to their means, and in some cases the students would be fully subsidized by the school. This can create a set of social rankings, in addition to the ranking of race and such.

4. One idea I’m not certain about is that at least some of the group would be linked by a shared heritage. In each of their families a magic item of uncertain origin and purpose had been handed down from generation to generation for them to hold in their care. That’s an idea I’ve hinted at before in the campaigns, but have never talked about explicitly. One of Rob’s old characters, a long lived Elf, carefully placed magic items among various families with the promise that they would either return them or else answer the call to use them should that be required. That’s the seed of an idea that could be spun out into more significance.

5. The last campaign was very much a traveling campaign. I’m running an urban game right now, so while I want to use the school as a solid and complete backdrop, eventually I’d like the characters to be able to travel. I had a couple of thought on that. One would be to have a very strange geography outside the school walls, giving them a place to explore when they decide to cut classes. Another would be “field trips”. Probably the most useful would be the existence of strange and hidden doors within the school that they are somehow able to unlock. Assuming they keep them secret they could go to very different places…which could tie in with whatever the major plot is going to be.

6. One of the key elements of the game will be the social interaction between the players and their peers, teachers and staff. Sherri suggested creating a measure for reputation and trust among the various groups. There could be variations on the kinds of reputation: reliable, bookworm, rebel, etc. that could affect the different groups. I want to borrow from the various “school” anime in this respect. I think if I consciously invoke those tropes at the table, people will be willing to play along. I did some of that in another short run game and it turned out quite enjoyable.

7. For the last campaign I tried something a little different than I had before. Generally I have a thematic idea and start to come up with challenges/opponents as the game progresses. Then I tie things together and build the greater plot. I usually have an inkling of the big plot at the start as a direction as I improvise. One of the problems with this method has been putting too many plots and directions on the table for the players. Also I found that not being able to see or take on the big stuff for some time wasn’t as satisfying for the players. There’s that fantasy quest syndrome where things happen, they get a sense of the big bad, have to gather up resources and items to fight it and have minor skirmishes along the way. For the last campaign I decided to start by coming up with three significant bad guy groups. There might be some interaction between them, but in general they would be individual threats and challenges. I would lay hints along the way about all three, but as they locked on to one, I would focus the story around that group and the process to stopping their plans. As they finished up one threat, I’d pull some of the previously established hints to show them that the next group had even more diabolical plans. This worked pretty well. There has a sense of escalating tension, there were grand scheme foiled, the players felt a sense of accomplishment and by the time they got to the final villainous threat they really saw him as significant because they’d picked up details about him throughout the game and defeated him in minor skirmishes before.

8. Following on the last point, but I wanted a paragraph break. Right now I’m not sure what I want to do as the “challenge” arc for the campaign. The school gives me a vast pool of thematic elements, but it also puts the game in a more limited space. If I don’t do a mammoth, epic scale threat then I need to figure out how to make the challenges I do put them in feel important. It would be very easy just to ape the Voldemort plot, with a big evil returning that has a tie to the school, but I don’t want to do that. Perhaps there is a threat that the school itself presents to the outside world that the players have to uncover. That plays into the players’ natural distrust of authority figures—something which itself poses some problems for a structured game.

9. At the end of the last campaign I established that there had been a change in the world as a consequence of the events. A plane had been made more accessible to people. I imagined it as a kind of Ethereal plane, perhaps borrowing from Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. I don’t think of it as too shamanistic, as I’ve already done stuff with the Hero or Mythic plane in another campaign. I was just reading a new d20 setting called Etherscope which uses the idea of a similar plane where people can use their imagination to impose form on the space. They end up using it as a kind of “Net” which I think is neat, but one that is more literally visual. For example, for file and paper storage you would create a desk and drawers to house things. I’m probably off topic here. But I’m imagining that I might get some use out of that.

I need to think more on this. I don’t like how unsure I am at this point about what I’m doing. Maybe I need to start creating NPCs and see if that gives me ideas. I have a tarot based personality generator that I use to give me three elements form which I come up with a character’s story. That sometimes helps get me going. I have one other game to think about, another short run campaign which will be like Gotham Central. I’m going to use the slightly odd supernatural city of Arkham Harbor I use for the all-girls supers game. The players will be a special investigation group for the city. Brandy really likes forensics and mystery stuff so I want to give plenty of that as well as a little horror and a little police procedures. But I’m going to save thinking on that for another time. I’ve already pounded you with a lot of material. Plus if I start to brainstorm another thing, I’m afraid I’ll completely lose track of things.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Doubting Fairies & the Royal Society

Complimentary to this post on a rpg version of Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, some fiction I put together for that setting.

Doubting Fairies

“Mr. Makewar…I am truly surprised at you.”

Sir Blakeney leaned back away from his desk and set down the magnifying glass. He heard a slight gurgle of surprise from his guest. As he allowed his words to sink in, he reached out and sorted the images in front of him, photographs Mr. Makewar had brought him.

“I understand that Mr. Doyle has a sharp mind, after all he studied under the great Dr. Bell. However…” he allowed himself to trail off. He looked across the desk at Makewar, a man who wanted so much to believe. Blakeley knew something of him, an old colonial hand, now in his fading years, following the fads of Theosophy and Spiritualism. The man himself had an unhealthy look to him. He’d alternated bouts of malaria with recuperative trips in which he’d rested and buried himself under several stones of weight, only to lose it again in relapse. As a result his skin sagged, having ballooned out and faded again and again.

Blakeney knew he was about to add to that wear.

“Lord Blakeney…I don’t understand…I’ve been to three reputable photographers…men with expertise and experience…” Makewar’s voice had begun affronted and then trailed off into desperation.

“And they all told you these were authentic…and charged you a nominal fee of course.”

He let that hang for a moment before driving ahead. “As a member of the Royal Society, I have undertaken to do away with such muddleheadedness. Believe me, I have seen many fakes, many much more expertly conducted than these. Let me show you.”

He moved the photographs forward, turning the lamp so that the best possible light shone down. With a tiny wheeze, Makewar pulled his chair closer to the other side of the desk, squinting. Blakeney chose one image in particular and passed magnifying glass across. “Please Mr. Makewar, examine the photograph in general and tell me what you see.”

He leaned forward, trying to look at it anew.

He looked up. “I see a fairy, Mr. Blakeney…”

He turned his head back down to the photo, examining every detail of the tiny hands, the face, the shimmering wings beating like a hummingbird’s, an aura in the air. He looked at the backdrop, the garden, the fountain.

“I’ve looked at it a hundred times, a thousand…”

Now Blakeney added a harder edge to his voice. “And that is precisely why you cannot see. As I said, I do not doubt Mr. Doyle’s intentions. But, even though he chronicled the late Great Detective’s adventures, he is still a writer…a creature of imagination, a fabulist at heart.”
He took the glass from Makewar’s hands and held it over the fluttering wings on the paper. “Look there…what do you see?”

Makewar looked again—harder-- then his eyes opened wider. “A…a…line…but…that was not there before…”

“And here.” Blakeney moved the glass over the legs of the thing.

“Wait…I don’t understand, the limbs…they don’t fit quite right, but…”

“And here.” He moved the glass over the creature’s face, focusing the lens so that Makewar could see the tiny break below the chin of the thing where two pieces had been joined.

Makewar come close to tears, but held them back.

“But…they said…it looked so real…I saw fairies…” his jaw worked desperately, flapping the sagging skin. This close Lord Blakeney could see the tinge of the malaria on him.

He set the magnifying glass down. “You saw what you wished to see and that is how such things are done.” This was the voice of finality; there would be no appeal.

After that it was the work of a few minutes to have Makewar shown out. He seemed shorter now, something having been stolen out of him. He looked back once at Lord Blakeney, hoping for some word, some reassurance. Blakeney, for his part, held himself tight.

He returned to his desk and gathered up the photographs. He would need these for his next meeting.


The gathering remained informal, but Mr. Blakeney called the three men to order. He set his bag on the table to mark the moment, leaving it deliberately closed but in view. The theatrical touch seemed lost on two of the men, but the third appreciated it. Mr. Smile had to-- he himself banked on such flourishes. A “Hougan” or something of that sort from the Caribbean, his exaggeratedly proper dress clashed with a fine ivory tattoo outlining the bones of his skull. Smile fascinated and repulsed Blakeney, but he’d proven to be the right man in a pinch.

The other two he had less confidence in.

“It seems…” he began slowly, perhaps a little absently “…that Dr.Cross has managed to reach The Other Side and enlisted the aid of the Dark Court.” He laid out the photographs on the table, the dancing winged images at odds with the tension in the air. Mr. Coiner picked one up.

“I did a fine job with these if I say so myself.” Coiner’s pride and northern accent irked Blakeney. Coiner’s “ability” involved retroactively manipulating the electro-magnetic ether. Blakeney didn’t pretend to understand it--the ability had only proven useful once before when he’d used it to warm a plate of kippers during their entombment at the Pole. In this case though, he been able to add little details into Mr. Makewar’s photographs from a distance and after the fact…the discreet string, blur lines to hint at fakery, and armatures turned at wrong angles.

“Yes…but the question lies in what purpose Dr. Cross intends by making these images public?” Blakeney touched his fingertips together and tapped his chin. “It is an obvious gambit…a trap. We know the location of the photographic shoot and now we will have to go and deal with…these…” He gestured again at the images on the table.

“Shall we contact Mr. Fen then? His acupuncture skills came in handy last time we dealt with them.” Mr. Smile drew up the corners of his mouth in a titanic grin and tilted his head up slightly for effect. A happy death mask.

Sir Blakeney had a brief memory of that, the killing jars, the mounting boards, and Mr. Smile spending many hours after, carefully spreading the wings and shellacking the pinned specimens.

“No…Mr. Fen is in Shanghai dealing with the beastly Boxers. As well…” He set down the book he’d been thumbing through. “…this time we are to capture a number of them alive.”

The third man…boy really…Gilbert’s eyes bugged out, the reaction Blakeney had expected from him. He was new, young and an American, three details which served as an irritant from the day they’d met. Still, his inventive genius, especially with collapsible devices, had proven useful. Coiner simply looked puzzled, but Smile continued to…well…smile.

“Capture them?…how…we’d need tiny equipment…tiny cages…” Gilbert’s voice squeaked as he worked up a head of steam for his objections. He’d clearly taken this as an affront to his skills.

Blakeney cut him off. “As it happens, I have requested just such equipment from our allies in the Service.” He reached into his carefully placed bag. From its depths he lifted out a precise, miniature iron cage, holding it on the tips of his fingers. The others remained quiet as he gently set it down on the table. “We have large quantity of such equipment left over from a Royal Army expedition led by a certain Mr. Gulliver.”

The Royal Society

England in 1660 remained in the throes of political division, religious tension and superstition. With Charles II’s restoration to the throne, those who had supported Parliament and his enemy, Oliver Cromwell found themselves quickly and not so quietly purged. But in November of that year a group of unlikely men gathered to hear a lecture from Sir Christopher Wren. This group of thinkers, scientists and visionaries drew their numbers from both sides of the struggle. Strangely Charles II granted a charter to the society which arose from this meeting, ignoring the presence of so many of his old enemies. Within a decade this Royal Society reshaped the direction of scientific progress, bringing order and method to investigations of the material world. This change, this advantage would permit England to rise and dominate the next two centuries.

Yet this scientific revolution and the society which spawned it would be only part of what came of that meeting. Indeed the mastermind behind the arrangements, Sir Robert Moray, had not envisioned the Royal Society but something else. Spymaster, Mason, Ambassador, Warrior, Advisor to the King and former agent of Richelieu, Moray had traveled Europe during these tumultuous years. Inducted as a Mason, his order had made him privy to secrets deeper and older than the affairs of Empires. He knew the darkness hanging at the edges of civilization-- in deep forests where peasants appeased ancient forces, in desert lands commanded by masters with uncanny powers, and ancient ruins where hermetic secrets had unleashed terrors.

His blade had crossed paths with these things and others. He’d realized steel alone could only delay, not defeat. With the King’s return to England he set his plan in motion. The earliest members of the Royal Society belonged to Masonic orders, to say nothing of the King himself. Many had learned further secrets of the lines between superstition and reality. They sought to forge a weapon against the enemies of England and the world; they would pit reason and rationality, order and progress against fear and isolation, chaos and decay.

To that end, they began to gather agents, scholars, soldiers, spies and diplomats. Acting in shadowy parallel, they tracked events which might disturb the new order the Royal Society developed. These small groups worked to eliminate and conceal anything smacking of unreason. Yet, as Moray had known when he began, they themselves would not be above using the powers of unreason. They recruited from among those who might otherwise be enemies by bribery, blackmail and threats. They remained one step ahead of the knowledge of the day-- using the advantage well. As years passed, they honed their techniques. When Brownies tore up train tracks, the league bagged them within a week. When werewolves roamed the moors, the league tracked them with dowsing and bloodhounds. When cherubim appeared to parishioners, the league burned the church.

The 19th Century explosion of technological developments forced Moray’s league to react to new threats, these based more on the science and reason they had determined to protect. The threats drew themselves from the scientific fringes …mechanical men, destructive rays, flying devices and a host of other inventions pushing at the imagination’s boundaries. With the coronation of Queen Victoria, the league decided to pursue a modified charter. The world had grown larger, with representatives of England’s greatness scattered across the globe. The league would work to serve and protect that Empire. Inventions of wonder and amazement would be carefully restricted and managed, but to fulfill this they would have to reach out across the whole of Pax Britannica. They took the fight to Thugees in India, Witch Doctors in the Congo and Deathless Sorcerers in the Orient.

In this way they kept back those strange threats which might disturb the Empire’s dreams. Nightmares—Masterminds of technological terror, Anarchist Vampires, Robotic Doppelgangers—remained quietly hidden. Yet, this success would be the downfall of Moray’s league. As the Empire grew, so did the power and diversity of its defenders. Yet, their resources remained stretched thin and counter attacks took their toll. Remaining cells lost unity and contact. Some began to question the use of “special operatives” while others embraced the enemy’s weapons.

By Victoria’s Jubilee in 1898, Moray’s organization lies in tatters, separate groups unaware of one another and often at odds, a chain of authority and orders more like a chandelier than an organizational chart. The millennium approaches as the Empire begins to fade, with rumblings first at the most distant parts: Egypt, Southern Africa, China. How long can Queen Victoria survive and with her, the Empire?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cyberpunk Literary Tropes and RPGs

Most role-playing games are fan-fiction.

If we define fan fic as stories in which the writer creates new characters and plots in an existing setting, then that includes most published games. In some ways role-playing games serve as active engines for this-- allowing the insertion of a group into that setting. For more classic tropes-- swords and sorcery, golden-age sci fi and superheroes that works fine. More interesting is to see how various role-playing games have adapted notions and forms from particular sub-genres and movements within speculative fiction. To that end I want to look at three of those movements-- Cyberpunk, Steampunk and the New Weird.

Obviously the grand-daddy of role-playing games, Dungeons and Dragons, borrowed liberally from Tolkien. That essentially set the terms for what a fantasy role-playing game would look like. There would be other early fantasy games which would question those conventions. Runequest and Tekumel, for example, began from the ground up to create a rich and unique fantasy setting. However the greater number would follow DnD's lead. We would have Elves, Hobbits (or Haflings as later versions would adopt), Orc, and Dwarves. Just as many (perhaps too many) later fantasy authors would follow that lead, fantasy rpgs tended to stay along those lines.

Eventually there would be adaptations of specific works: Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle, the Thieves World anthologies, Niven's Ringworld, and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos would be among the earliest licensed adaptations. Notably each of these adaptations came from Chaosium Games, among the first to build a simple generic system (Basic Role-Playing) which could serve as an unobtrusive engine while the rest of the material provided a sourcebook for the relevant source. Other licensed adaptations would follow later- some big names-- Conan and A Game of Thrones in a couple of versions, while others were more obscure or at least niche-- Norton's Witch World, Wolfe's New Sun, Brin's Uplift, Foster's Humanx, and Gerrold's Chtorr. The last notable for being an adaptation of an incomplete series with serious questions unanswered.

Arguably the cross pollination between the two forms has had a strong back and forth. Ann Rice's Interview with the Vampire certainly inspired Vampire the Masquerade. The success of that line and the various additional settings within their “World of Darkness” line laid a strong seedbed that probably helped the growth of modern urban fantasy like Laura K. Hamilton and others. That's manage to come back full circle with some of the new ideas influencing White Wolf's New World of Darkness after they rebooted their game lines.

It is worth noting which novels and works have been adapted and which have not. In many cases it is clearly a question of money. However, there's running rumor among role-players that the reason there's no rpg adaptation for Harry Potter is that Rowling doesn't want other people creating stories in her sandbox. If that's true, certain kinds of fan fic must be particularly disturbing. On the other hand, some games have gotten around that by liberally borrowing the tropes and reworking them. Redhurst Academy of Magic, for example, while steeped in a heady brew of d20 multidimensional settings, presents a school and play structure that clearly owes a huge debt to Hogwarts.

As Tolkien is to a certain kind of deep history high fantasy, so William Gibson's Neuromancer is to cyberpunk. He put all the elements into place that defined the genre- for better or worse.

Gibson's novel came out in 1984, and by 1988 we saw the first serious adaptations of those concepts with R Talsorian Game's Cyberpunk 2013 (later Cyberpunk 2020 as they moved the goalposts). While not a licensed product it wore its sources on its sleeve. For some time Cyberpunk became one of the more popular science fiction role-playing lines available. It took that kind of gaming in a new direction, overturning the dominance of harder science fiction games such as Space Opera, the Star Trek Role-Playing Game, and most importantly Traveller. That last game had been the go to for sci-fi fans who wanted a “realistic” treatment-- interestingly in later editions Traveller would end up fluctuating between a desire to buy into some of the punk grittiness and a desire to remain more stoic and squeaky-clean.

Reading the Cyberpunk rpg material can be an exercise in patience. Much of it seems to be built on two central ideas: Style and Cool as Motivation and Machine Love. The first encourages the players to adapt a “Punk” attitude and live for the moment, being as cool as possible, without concern about the moral motivations. While moral ambiguity remains the accepted norm for players, the bad guys end up drawn with no ambiguity-- essentially everyone, governments, corporations, your dentist, serves evil ends or plots. Self-interest and leaving a pretty corpse take the place of old school rpg alignment systems. And players will leave a pretty corpse, because for all of its talk of style, cool and drama, Cyberpunk remains a horribly unforgiving system. You can die easily-- whether you're a gunrunner or a Netrunner. Its one of the few games I've seen that seems to put a statement about the futility of life in the mechanics themselves.

The other central theme, Machine Love, isn't exclusive to R Talsorian's game, but instead infects most of the other rpg adaptations of the genre. William Gibson's work, and that of other important influences in cyberpunk, presents an ambiguity to the omnipresence of the technology-- real and serious questions about those consequences. That's at the heart of much of the cyberpunk literary genre. In the role-playing games, those questions become reduced to mechanical concerns: how many devices can I have embedded in my body before I have to roll for humanity loss?

So as the series goes on you have an acceleration of that tech love-- with their Chrome Book series detailing, essentially, more and more dangerous stuff as the most poplar supplements for the game. Guns, cybernetics, vehicles, until at the end you have Maximum Metal, the sourcebook for full-body cyborg conversion. By these later supplements one can see the impact newly available anime on the game. Ideas from Akira and Appleseed began to worm their way in-- bringing their take on cyberpunk as a genre to the table.

One can also read this as a response to the pressures of the market. Consider your typical role-playing group. Generally everyone will want to purchase the core book-- or at least it will be useful to them. Materials which cover character creation options-- such as the notorious “splat” books detailing particular classes, professions, races or the like will appeal to a narrower segment of the game buying public. Gamemasters will likely want them, as well as players who will be playing that kind of character-- or might be thinking about playing one. Things like the Cyberpunk Chrome Books appeal to all players-- new toys, loot and character options useful to any class. It serves as a kind of rpg fetish porn for power players. General sourcebooks with background material and additional rules options will appeal to GMs (again) and to completist players. But then there's material written exclusively for gamemasters-- adventures, campaign material, GM screens, adversary sourcebooks, and general guides. These will have a narrower audience. If you're a game publisher, ideally you want to provide a variety of material, but at the same time you want the largest number of potential purchasers. So pandering to those players is a smart move financially.

Cyberpunk stands apart from a couple of other parallel rpgs which came about about the same time in caught on and eventually had the room to pander to its audience. Iron Crown Enterprises tried to copy with its system CyberSpace. That only published a handful of supplements compared to the several dozen R Talsorian did. Steve Jackson Games notoriously attempted GURPs Cyberpunk which earned them a raid from the Secret Service. Their main book remained generic but a couple of supplements tried to provide a more specific foundation, Cyberworld and even CthulhuPunk. While they never supported that as an individual line, they did invest in one of the seed directions that arose from Cyberpunk as a genre with their Transhuman Space setting. Reading something like Charlie Stross' Accelerando, you can see and evolution of the cyberpunk genre in a new direction. Reading Steve Jackson's Transhuman Space elicits the same reaction-- seeing perhaps a more realistic appraisal of what technology might actually mean rather than a specific ethos of paranoia and nihilism.

Ironically, the only other real contender to Cyberpunk as a representative of that genre would be something that looked back in the other direction: FASA's Shadowrun. Instead of a futurist vision of the real consequences of the kinds of developments arising from the technology suggested in the cyberpunk genre, Shadowrun adds Orks, Elves and Dwarves. At the time Shadowrun came out it was fairly revolutionary-- one of the first successful games to really and seriously mash up fantasy and science fiction in a coherent way (though some might argue for the mess that is Spelljammer, released the same year. But they're wrong.).

In some ways the emergence of Shadowrun, which would arguably become the most popular and well distributed of the cyberpunk themed rpgs, demonstrated the dilution of the cyberpunk concepts. They could be reduced to several key concepts, with a visual appeal: plugging into machines, cyber-implants, a semi-apocalyptic future, and big guns. Mix that with dragons and you end up with marketing gold for a certain kind of role-player.

Gibson himself had his own take on this in a 1998 interview, " of the things that we were really conscious of was appropriation. Appropriation as a post-modern aesthetic and entrepreneurial strategy. So we were doing it too. We were happily and gloriously lifting all sorts of flavours and colours from all over popular culture and putting it together to our own ends. So when I see things like Shadowrun, the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves. Somewhere somebody's sitting and saying 'I've got it! We're gonna do William Gibson and Tolkien!' Over my dead body! But I don't have to bear any aesthetic responsibility for it. I've never earned a nickel, but I wouldn't sue them. It's a fair cop. I'm sure there are people who could sue me, if they were so inclined, for messing with their stuff. So it's just kind of amusing." (

Some argue that once you're able to reasonably define a genre it has worn out its welcome. Over time more text arrive that can better classed as “products” rather than deeper examinations of those tropes. They ape the conventions and pay lip service to the underlying ideas. Role-playing games, arising from a sense of play and wish fulfillment, may be more susceptible to that than other forms of narrative. R Talsorian's Cyberpunk, in particular has an interesting coda in the form of a sequel rpg setting, CyberGeneration. In that game the players take the role of youthful characters, granted powers through a nanovirus infection and trying to survive and make better the Cyberpunk world. The game explicitly rejects the nihilism and hollow focus on style of the earlier game. While the world remains dark, the campaign presented encourages them to fight against that. That new direction reflects the kinds of new directions authors had begun to take "cyberpunk" within speculative fiction itself.

Next time-- questions of how systemization affects the adaptation and Steampunk; then Indie RPGs and The New Weird.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Just realized thing I'm working on is going to end up as a three parter. Will try to get the first part up today.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Libri Vidicos: the Headmaster's Testament

Off a day-- hope to post again tonight. In the last session of Libri Vidicos we saw the fallout from a pretty major event-- the death of the alignment ambiguous Headmaster of the school Gravast Direlond. He left behind a testament to be given to the players, reproduced below:

I arrived at Libri Vidicos thirty some years ago. I had nothing. I had, rightly, earned the enmity of my people and had been forced to leave my homeland. I had tried to find some place to live and perhaps figure out how to carry out my agenda, but had been thwarted both by the Illumuri and, moreso, by my own temperament. It was in those darkest days that Headmaster Souldain came to me and offered me a place at Libri Vidicos. At first I assumed it was because he'd seen my native talent and vision. Only later I would learn that was not the case, but I will come to that.

Libri Vidicos takes in the great and the misfit, and throws them together to see what happens. We have always stayed above the fray. We do not act, but we create those people who have have the opportunity to act. Even with all that we teach, you would be surprised at how few can take up that mantle. Libri Vidicos does not make heroes-- it makes people with the potential to be heroes and the understanding of the choices and consequences involved. Some do for good, and some do for ill. I suspect over time that has shifted, that the ethos of these places may be cyclical, but that is another discussion.

I came here and became a teacher, and a staff person. And, as you can imagine, I served in House Darsksoul. I was ambitious, overbearing, and possibly unpleasant to be around for my strange sense of humor. Of course, I'm much different now and have grown into my beloved nature. But in those days, some might not have liked me. Headmaster Souldain pointed out my faults, laughed at my errors and in general helped to shape me. Though I did not see it as help at the time. In fact I found the Headmaster irritating and suspected he might be on the wrong side of things. Perhaps because of that, I eventually became close friends with the Headmaster's son, Vas Souldain. He was handsome, popular and well-placed within Libri Vidicos. Like many others, I considered it an honor to be counted among his company.

I was perhaps, blind in this. But as some excuse, I will say that I was not alone in this. It is not to say I did not have some warning that my judgment might be clouded. The Lady Darkbough, for example, had a distinct dislike for Vas, and told me so. But I discounted her opinion-- one among many errors I made in my treatment of her. I knew Vas would be Headmaster after his father would retire and I knew that to advance in station I must tie my star to his. But beyond that, I liked him. He treated me with deference and respect, or at least he flattered me in that regard.

I stay on this point too long, when I should come to the heart of the matter. When the Autocthonians came, the Headmaster knew of their approach. He knew something of what they intended and how dangerous they could have been to the world. Mind you, he didn't share that information or how he came to it, but that is the way of Headmasters. When the crisis erupted, and the call came to us- the Headmaster moved into action, or rather into discussion. Libri Vidicos had held itself apart, remaining away from some of the greatest crises of the ages. Voices were raised in different directions as to how to deal with the situation, a situation most of us did not fully comprehend even at that late hour. Most spoke for continuing our policies of avoidance. Vas spoke for active intervention-- for bringing the resources of Libri Vidicos to bear, and using that as leverage for the advancement of the school. And I backed him in this. As did many others, some of who you know.

After much discussion, the Headmaster decided on limited intervention and aid. He'd made up his mind before this meeting, but he wanted to see how everyone would fall out. To lead the LV contingent, he selected Avansa Nullproof, an eminent teacher and someone I disliked intensely. She'd stayed on the fence for most of the discussion, generally supporting non-intervention. But when assigned the task, she agreed and did it. You may not realize this, but like your own Saberhagen, she was on the Great Southern Dragon when it went to the Moon and when it battled against the Autocthonians. Most of the LV contingent perished in that battle, attending as they were to the potent weapons they brought, which became prime targets for the Autocthonians.

Vas, saw all of this as a slight to him, as he should have. I began to see at that point, the rift that existed between the son and the father. I didn't understand the nature of it at that time.

We survived the Autocthonian war thanks to the efforts of many, relatives of some of you. And the War itself caused a shift in the world-- tearing the closest layers of the dimensions and making some of them more accessible, not for travel beyond our world, but within. And some of these levels had a potent power to them, a shapefulness that we've only just begun to understand. Those who had survived and had been present at what occurred in the War returned and brought us information on that. Again, the Headmaster seemed to know something of it already-- and again his knowledge seemed to come from sources we had no knowledge of.

In any case, a number of the staff soon turned their attention to this problem. As you can imagine, the presence of such new territory excited many, particularly among the most youthful instructors. Among that number was Vas, and many of those close to him. I played with it somewhat, but for different purposes, having my own projects I still had not made headway on. Parties, quiet and subtle, may quick surveys of the crash sites we could reach. Discoveries were being constantly made-- beyond the ability of the various administrators to track, and perhaps something of the teaching suffered. Arguments and debates filled the halls as to the implications and consequences of these new things.

Not being perhaps as interested in the Etherplaces, my connection with Vas weakened. We remained of the same clique and he treated me as well as always, but I know now I was not as much in his confidences as before. Others were and they began to work more feverishly in private. It was only through those channels that I first heard of the Headmaster's speech to his son-- that Vas would not succeed him as Headmaster. That this was a given and his energies were better put to use elsewhere. I tried to speak to him when I heard the news, since it had not become public knowledge, but he laughed it away- saying his father's words meant little now. That he had bigger plans.

As one given to ominous speech I should have noted that, but I instead hoped for the best.

So we come to it. There was much before this-- things I and others should have seen. Portents and signs. But I do not wish to dwell on it. I should have liked to have written a full autobiography of myself someday, to lay down my memoirs in hopes it would encourage some and dissuade others. That is, I fear, not to be. What I say next is in confidence. It will be believed by some and discounted by others. Most of those present at that incident are dead, deranged or gone over to something else. I have allowed the rumors to persist that I killed the Headmaster, as it served my purposes-- but I did not do that thing. Far more unwisely I allowed certain things to fester and grow and perhaps also handled other things with less than expert precision.

I could go to the long of it, but I will not. Suffice as to say, Vas had a plan. He had allies, a number of instructors and staff who hoped for greater power in a coup. As well, he had a group of students bent to his will-- perhaps a group not unlike yourselves, who followed him and thought they were moving to defeat a great evil. And, though I did not realize it at the time, he had acquired an ally outside of the school. That, again I will come back to, as it remains a stubborn question in this.

Vas and his allies worked to empty the school and sow crisis before the attack. It is perhaps to my credit that I was not seen as a credible ally or threat, and found myself rushing to try to make sense of what was going on. I found myself with a few other instructors-- men and women I wish you could have met. They grabbed me up and set to try to stop whatever danger faced Libri Vidicos-- unsure of how it had managed to breech the ways. I knew as soon as I saw Vas' fingerprints on the situation-- he used the Etherplaces and undoubtedly some kind of vessel.

And so there came a battle—a long-running and horrible one, with students- convinced by Vas of their own good intentions-- caught in the middle. Some died, some panicked and a few recognized the error of their ways. Teacher fought teacher, staff member fought staff member in the great halls. It was there that Lady Darkbough met her fate at the hands of the d'Ambreville as you must know by now. Even as she died she pressed me to go and rescue the Headmaster.

Again, being underestimated served me well as I stood well down on the list of targets and I managed to make my way up through passages and entryways I'd committed to memory. I had turned my back on my Illymuri heritage but I was still a dwarf and knew stone and construction like my own blood.

I came onto the scene-- to find Vas standing over his own father, preparing to deal the death blow. He'd prepared and worked hard in his plans. He'd crafted a weapon to strike at his father-- attuned to his own blood to cut through defenses. It worked and the Headmaster had been undone despite his protections. We spoke and Vas taunted, laughed at me for my foolishness and stupidity as I attempted to turn him from his course.

And then we fought and Vas learned a little of why I'd been chosen to come here and why I'd been forced to leave my own people.

As you know, Dwarves are not magic-casters. We have shamans and priests and those can work the principles to build machines and harness those powers. I, on the other hand, was a sorcerer. In fact, I was an arch-magi, not unlike the Lady Ozeros. However, I had one important distinction-- I could not cast. I knew and understood everything about magic-- saw the spells woven into everything. I could not help but see every movement of energy and tie that bound power. Like every arch-magi, I suspect I went a little insane from that.

But I never spoke of that to anyone, save a few later on, my wife and now you.

So Vas cast and I tore his spells up with a gesture and a word. I walked through the hail of sorcery-- all of the magic he'd held in reserve in case his father-slaying wand had not worked. And I'll confess I felt some satisfaction as he began to realize his plight-- and then we engaged. I lept and headbutted him in a most satisfying way.

And we come to that-- you see I'd gotten that far and I hadn't really thought it through perhaps as well as I could have. Vas was skilled, of course, in dueling and weapons, and I well, I like hats and candy. Still we wrestled and my girth perhaps gave me a little edge. That and Vas' own exhaustion from having tapped the last of his magical strength.

I had the moment then, the knife at his throat and the chance to finish him. But I hesitated. I'd never killed anyone, and perhaps I recognized the consequences of such an act through the chaos and confusion. Then even as I readied to make the stroke, he activated his means of escape-- having put it off until the last possible second in the hope of claiming victory. I twisted the knife as he vanished and had the satisfaction of laying his neck open even as he departed. I had a hope-- a small hope-- at that moment that he had died. But I suspect I knew he hadn't.

I went to Headmaster to see what I could do-- and tried to go to fetch what medics might still be available. But he clutched my sleeve and pulled me back.

He apologized to me. The man who'd seen and not done anything to stop this ahead of time. The man who failed to save him. He apologized and told me why he'd recruited me-- that he'd seen that I would be the next Headmaster, that things would go wrong and I might be able to put it right. And then he apologized for not being able to pass on the knowledge of Libri Vidicos he possessed-- the answers to so many questions, questions you yourself asked me-- the Student Council, the Eidolons, and so many other things. He directed me to some answers, and he told me a little of the Omnimostikon.

And then he died.

No one had seen this scene and when I came down to survey the battle, I found more dead than living among the combatants. Many more dead. For those among the enemies, I had them put away until we could question and perhaps extract answers from them. Especially the Lady d'Ambreville-- who had not been a Vampire before. I wanted to learn how she'd come to that state. And, I confess, to perhaps use her to find a way to revert the Lady Darkbough to her previous existence. Among the few living, some were broken, badly, like Osric and Esandra. Some lived but quit themselves of Libri Vidicos soon after, like Damaels of Soul's Point. A few remained, like Mr. Arendasi and Ishnarod Kant. In most cases we wiped the memory of the students who lived. Some stayed in school while others we returned home.

Mercer Spoon, who you have met, was among those students, but he'd realized early in the fight how badly they'd been tricked. He tried to save his fellow students and get them out of harm's way. He begged to keep his memory, and I granted him that.

The vast number of scholars and staff, however had not been involved with this and returned to the chaos. The next year was one of tumult. Many left then or departed in the years which followed. I struck the names and memories of the traitors of that day from the records- in retrospect an overreaction. I put the work of the Etherplaces under careful regulation and control. I disbanded the Explorer's Club- more out of memory than purpose and I pressed on.

That is until years later that the Omnimostikon revealed to me that Vas had had a son. A that the child of Libri Vidicos' adversary had to come to the school. I spent the next years watching and when he came of age, I called Sokka to this school. A first I thought him bait-- and that I'll confess early. But it was no long before I realized that he had, despite appearances and likeness, not Vas and would never be him. It was then that I determined to protect him.

My hour grows short-- I can see the symbols aligning themselves on this. I have perhaps made my fate a little more strongly than I wished to. But that is the great trick of foretelling and binding oneself to knowledge of the future. When you do that, you weave yourself into those threads and accept them as given. You cannot turn away when you practice those magics.

In brief so you may know these things-- Avansa Nullproof will be the next Headmaster. And I can't imagine that's going to be too much fun. Hopefully the councils and the Omnimostikon will point her to a suitable Assistant Headmaster to balance her temper.

The Omnimostikon will be hers-- if she can figure out more than she already knows. I have left her some instructions, properly cryptic, and no doubt she will be ill-tempered because of that. And no doubt she will have read this letter I have instructed be given to you. And she will give it, because if she does not, she will find more problems for herself.

The Omnimostikon is a foretelling and reading device. It is a heart, old in the body of Libri Vidicos, one set here among the various systems. It helps determine some of the students who will come here. Some things it tells are certain, and others more metaphorical. But, over the last year I have begun to realize, or rather once you spoke to me and passed certain information, I realized that the information I have received had been suborned-- not entirely corrupt, I believe, but the signs have been shifted and perhaps indicated things alike but not entirely what they should be. There may be some struggle among the Eidolons, knowing as we do now of their corruption. They cannot speak directly on these matters however-- the Omnimostikon operates under a different system and they merely feed it. So, that's been of no use in deciphering this.

I do not believe that Codici Malefactus is involved with the greater danger we face. They are a danger, but not our real enemy. Instead I believe that enemy is one I have overlooked in my assumption of Vas as the threat. Vas had an ally or allies when he struck before. I never considered that a significant factor until now. It seems clear to me that whomever he tied himself with now represents the real threat to our school; that enemy sent the Soul Taker we saw last year; and he or she has arranged present events, including the escape of Lady d'Ambreville.

I have other advice and other speech to give to you and perhaps you will discover some of it in the future. But my time grows short. I will fight this as well as I can but I suspect our enemy knows a good deal about me. He undoubtedly has at least one agent among the staff. I've tied myself to the paths of the future and the price is now come to be paid.

I leave you with this letter and also a gem I found in my travels-- Sokka, you have lived in poverty and I hope perhaps you might be able to sell it so that you can have a bright future away from all of the darkness which has surrounded you.

He comes now. I have only a little time to get this to Lethe.

Yours in trust,

Former Headmaster Gravast Direlond.

P.S. My hats are to be put on display properly in a memorial area of the school.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Campaign Postscript: Thiabaut's Reflections

Another recycling day today-- but with a purpose. This is what comes of running four games on the weekend and trying to write four different articles simultaneously. Anyway, after the end of the last Third Continent campaign, I wrote up a little afterword from the perspective of one of the NPCs having him go around and see how the various PCs were doing after the campaign's end (back in May of '03). For those in the current campaign, this takes place about 80 years ago. Here's what I wrote:

Thiabaut’s Reflections:

The black heart of Nochet lives, scarred, reduced, packed with those who could make it into the center through the winding streets as the Lunar Fleet arrived. Many more fled out through the gates of the city as best they could. Whole sections, neighborhoods have been flattened, but mostly at the edges and along the river. I would say that perhaps a little more than half of the city is destroyed. More is abandoned. Old lines of trade and communication have broken down. Many traveled south, to Heortland, others went North and East, hoping to find a place in the sparse countryside of the Cincor River Vale or in one of the new Principalities on the verdant plains. Those who remain, they are the city folk, multi-generational, some never having been beyond their neighborhoods, most never having been outside the city walls. Nochet led them to the heart of the city, the places where few went before, it having collapsed. There they found apartments surprisingly intact, buildings less rubble filled than they might have been. As I walked through the streets I could hear the timbers rejoin and the rocks fuse, quietly, slowly, imperceptibly.

Nochet is still a scary place and now I hear how it moves. I don’t think I can stay here for too long. Nochet himself and the Avatars are gone. Well, gone at least how they were, given flesh and form. They have returned to being quiet gods hidden the alleys, rubbish pits and dark corners. They ask me to stay, to lead this place, but that’s not anything I’d want to do. Yes, I tell them, I was involved in all of this, I fought the Warlords, I stood at Whitewall, I was there when the Red Emperor died. But, I clung on for dear life on the journey. It is not something I’d ever give up, but it is not something I’d ever want to repeat.

I stopped by the house of Theodorus’ daughter in-law. His magics had kept his neighborhood intact and free from harm. The residents knew this and she’d become the honored matron of the block. I brought her the news of her father-in-law’s death, the story of his heroism and a number of objects he’d left behind. Then I spent the evening being incredibly charming. She has a number of suitors, I know that, but the fun is always in the competition.

When I was ready to leave I called Mal. He popped up…though differently from the way the Elf used to. He tried to explain it to me. He’s able to move and transport, but with limitations. Somehow his powers were curtailed by what happened, though whether is was by Triple or by the Seven Mothers, I can’t be sure. Then again, he know how much his powers scare people…he’s smarter than people give him credit for…and he might just be hiding them. Devakki has him dressed funny, so I made sure I bought him a new hat while we were in the city. Surprisingly no one questioned why I had an Elf child in the city and Nochet made no fuss about his presence.

It has been some months since Whitewall was saved. I keep finding myself on the road. I find it is a good life, and of course, I mix it between actually walking and having Mal take me wherever I want. He seems not to mind it. I know the others, with some exception, don’t travel like this, they have too much on their plate.

Today I ran into Colvin in Cricket. He had a handful of those Meldek from Whitewall with him. After the siege was lifted, many of them split off, some of them heading to Pavis to join some kind of soulless clubhouse there. Others, including many who were once in Nochet left to travel across the sea. My sense of it is that Virocana would be left in the hands of others and that they were traveling to rejoin their brothers. Some, especially the younger ones, decided to remain here. They have at hand, in Colvin, an example of a magi who is active in the world. A number of them have taken to emulating his path as a investigator, some as adventurers. A number have become a cabal, assisting Colvin in his work as they travel up and down the coast.

Colvin seemed well, those still as terse as ever. Not unfriendly, but more of a cipher who listens more than he speaks. He did tell me that he was on the trail of Miguel. He then pressed me gently me for any information I had. I said I had heard nothing, though I suspect that he knew I wasn’t saying the whole truth. Still, he has his own secrets. I’m sure even I know less about what he and his Meldek are up to. Certainly, I noticed the small temples to Velhu opening up in the coastal cities. I wouldn’t be shocked to find that some of the treasure from the Cave of Kings and elsewhere had managed to find its way into the coffers of this cult. So long as he didn’t pawn that evil fingerbone to do it, I have no problem with it.


The Cincor River Vale is vastly different than I remember. The land is lush and verdant. In some places it is overgrown. The population here has risen, but there is still rich land available. No wonder so many were able to leave Nochet for here. Though I suspect he did not wish to, Cassius Roddano, was forced to take leadership here. From what I understand, Whitewall changed him and when he came here and took leadership, he did it in the name of the people here, not in the name of the Lunar Empire. He still has a cabal of Yanafal Tarnils Scimitars as his honor guard, but the worship here is simple.

He did not remember me from the first time we met (which was a good thing since I was a skeleton then), but he knew me from the celebrations after the siege. We had a pleasant meal together. He is informal, but quiet. I suspect the death of his sister affected him more deeply than he can say. He asked me nothing about the death of the Red Emperor, but I could tell that it shook him deeply. His knows he was a pawn in these things and has determined to make up for that.

The people here respect him and the order he has brought. Cincor as a whole has become a land of small kingdoms, bordered by potentially threatening neighbors. Roddano will keep back any, such as Agrikans or the coastal city states, who might try to take things here. He keeps the Lunar Judical Code, but rejects any other trappings of the Empire. At the same time, his civilized sentiments mean that the Orlanthi are kept in check. Of the many new places I have seen, I predict Roddano’s land will last the longest.


After I left the Cincor River Vale, I traveled north through the jungles. Here lie a number of smaller “kingdoms”. All of them have thrown off their Lunar yoke, and split into tiny domains. The Agrikans, split into several factions, have four different places here, the most important being in Pamesani. As well, Gemanshol retains great swaths of land, as well as a Yelmi contingent. Combined with the influence of the coastal cities, and the threat of invasion from Holy Country and these jungles have become dangerous. After the third time I was captured and questioned, I opted to call Mal. The fall of the Warlords helped a lot, but this place was going to be a mess for some time.


The Kingdom of Sha-Karag. Now this is a place I could get used to. I wasn’t around…BECAUSE I WAS DEAD…when Maraketh managed to become King of this place, but he seems to have done pretty darn well for himself. I heard some story about a big dry desert and a horde of flying heads or something to that effect, but I don’t worry about that. In fact it is difficult to even imagine that when you’re laying on pillows being fed chilled grapes by servants.

It is interesting, the people of Sha-Karag are Malkioni like Maraketh’s people, but they behave very differently from them. Certain virtues, such as modesty and frugality, are less important here than honesty and chivalry. Hence, my ability, as a guest of the King to be surrounded by lovely exotic Zothiquean beauties in fine silks feeding me dinner. On the other hand, King Maraketh seemed less comfortable throughout these proceedings. I caught him looking at me and blushing and then turning back to his lovely bride to resume his very serious conversation about political matters.

It’s funny, among his own people, Maraketh seemed like the most relaxed of a tribe of uptight warriors in plate mail, but here he is the one with the straightest backbone…blushing constantly and lowering his eyes modestly. Still, his people seem to love him for this. Their thousand Knights returned alive and with tales of the battles their King had won, ensuring his lasting legacy in the annals of their history. Apparently, during the siege of Whitewall, Sha-Karag had its own enemies to battle, with the Mad Sultan’s Children, warriors of magic, pouring down into the land. The bards here have composed songs of those battles, with Knights and Drakes fighting desperately side-by-side to stem the tide…until by a brilliant stroke of genius, someone (ME!) activated the Wane of Magic. It reached out to here, destroying the Mad Sultan’s Children and the Mad Sultan himself (and some Drakes, which is too bad but I understand those parts sell well on the open market). I made sure that Maraketh announced in public that I was the one who set off the Wane. I profited well from that celebritydom.

However, the celebrations to commemorate me, Thiabaut, destroyer of the Mad Sultan and savior of Sha-Karag, were overshadowed by another announcement the next day. I heard celebrations and cheering in the streets, managed to extricate myself from between a couple of guests in bed and went over to the window. It seemed that earlier that morning, the Vizier had announced the pregnancy of the Queen of Sha-Karag. I decided now would be a good time to leave, I knew Maraketh would be occupied with matters of state and in the midst of such a blessed event, best not to have a pagan thief cultist waiting around. I counted up my silverware and left.


My next stop was Vemdeez, for a brief stopover to see Uzbak Snakeskinner and get the story about what was happening in this part of the world. After the battle at Whitewall, Uzbak had called all of his Orlanthi warriors together. They were expecting a victory speech, but instead he took off his helmet to show them they’d been following a troll, then turned around, mooning them and spraying them with hot, liquid troll feces. He then bounded off into the air. Only the intervention of Kallyr Starbrow kept them from rioting.

I had supper with Uzbak in a small inn. He told me a little something about his travels in the Overworld and how he’d managed to stay alive. He told me he’d been in contact with the Owl since Whitewall. Having lost all of the other swords, she had lost some of her power. A number of her cities on the Spirit plane had been ravaged by the celestial hurricane Devakki’s confrontation with the Bad Man had created. Now, she was offering Vemdeez an alliance. Uzbak thought that perhaps they might take it.

From what I understood, Vemdeez was sparsely populated. Apparently being human and worshipping Troll goes does something to your overall fertility. Several of the city-states of Zothique, now without a Lunar authority, were eyeing the Vemdeez lands. As well, the Carmanians to the south might consider conquest. An alliance between his people and that of the Only Old One’s daughter might serve them both. We talked longer into the night, exchanging Trickster stories. Vemdeez seemed like a nice enough place, a bit trollish though. It was strange to see people painting themselves as trolls and wearing amulets of Kyger Litor, but I’d seen stranger. Again, I thought about how much evil we’d destroyed…the Red Emperor, the Chaos Cultists, The Bright One, Triple, Lord Death on a Horse, The Bad Man… and I wondered about the wars that would happen because they were gone.

Overall, I thought we’d done right and still do. The world is a better place for what we’ve done and I’ve come out ok. Except for having to watch those apes…


My next stop was to I don’t know where. Mal knew apparently and took me there. I found myself in a foreboding place, beside a river. A storm hung over head and I saw people digging. I walked over to the edge of the hole and looked down in to see what they were digging for.

When I woke up, I found myself in a tent. I knew that I’d looked at something I shouldn’t have. My bones were chilled, though I knew that is was still blazing hot out. Audara was sitting there, eating. I could tell that a grand meal had been prepared, but apparently I’d been unconscious for some time. I gingerly reached for an apple which had rolled off the table and outside of Audara’s sight.

“Umm…what was that?” I asked.

“We’re digging the foundation for the new enclosure. We’ve reached the outer layers of Hell. Right now we’re tunneling into the foundations of the old Enclosure.” She nodded very seriously.

“I see…so I shouldn’t have looked…”

“Probably not.” She finished her plate. For the first time I noticed the man in the corner, his cloak dripping with ashes. He still scared me.

Audara continued. “The new Enclosure…our new city will be ready soon enough. Then we can put the Spirits and the Demons back.”

I thought I understood. “Ah, so that’s why you’re digging into Hell. To give them passage back.”

Audara looked at me strangely. “No, we’re just building the foundation, the basement on top of Hell. The Spirits and Demons are here.”

“Here…what do you mean here?” I said, not understanding.

Then she looked at me and behind her eyes, I could see them, a boundless screaming pit, a line of demons tracing its ancestry back to the beginning of time, all of the spirits of fury and insanity and devastation that had once been held in by the walls of the Shargrashi, the Walls of the Enclosure, Alkoth.

I began to babble and foam at the mouth. I’m fairly certain I peed myself.

“They’re here…” Audara said. “I ate them.”


Again, I don’t quite remember how the next part of my journey happened. When I woke up I found myself outside. A gentle rain had awoken me. Mal was sitting beside me. He was wearing that strange little Grazelander outfit Devakki had fashion for him. I noticed that he had the hat I’d purchased for him though.

When I first sat up…I was gripped by terror for a moment. I thought I was beside the hole Audara’s people had been digging. Instead, it took a moment to resolve. I realized that I was looking into the crater, the crater we…I…had made in Beast Valley. Hanging in the center, in the air, perhaps the size of a small house, was a great black sphere…the Void Sphere. It had shrunk, but it still drew. A slight wind moved past, evidence of the remaining force of the thing. Below it, where the sphere had receeded, I saw a perfectly spherical crater…the bottom was filled with water, a lake fed by the river running through the Valley. I could see ripples on the surface of the lake at the point below and closest to the Void Sphere. Water gently rained upwards into it, creating a rainbow from the light passing through it.

Mal walked me around a bit. I saw things moving in the tree, creatures and beast. They seemed to have congregated around this place. But instead of the threat I had felt before, I could feel that these things were here guarding. Mal seemed to enjoy it…he careful recited their names in a language I could not understand. The Valley was lush and from this place, raised above the floor and the green, I could see for miles.

Later, Devakki returned. She had with her Icehand. For a moment I felt a twinge of jealousy…unreasonable and without basis. He greeted me, we exchanged a few moments of conversation before he excused himself to head back out of the Valley. Devakki prepared food. I spent the next several hours telling her of the people I had seen, our friends, how things had fared in the eight months since Whitewall. She seemed pleased to listen, and I was as charming as ever, but I could tell there was something else. Her attention kept wandering…as if she heard something different in the noises of the night that I did not.

Finally I asked. “Devakki, what are your hearing?”

She looked back at me and smiled. For a moment my heart broke. There was something of wonder there, even as she looked past me into the night. “I’m listening to the world…”

And she meant it. We sat there for a time longer, she tried to explain it…how she saw and heard the world, saw and heard the plane of the spirit…spirits of all kinds, changed by what had happened…changed as she was. I confess it was beyond me. She was in love with the world. In love with everything around here.

That was something I could never compete with. It perhaps explained the look on Icehand’s face when I spoke to him, to be in the presence of someone in contact with something so much greater.

When I finally felt tired, I excused myself and climbed into my sleeping blankets. As I began to sleep, hovering between this world and the other, I saw Devakki rise up, gossamer, silver flying, rising her steed into the sky…her bow drawn and ready…a protector, an avenger, shepherd of spirits, guardian of dreams, transcendent and lovely. When I woke up, she had already headed out into the Valley, so Mal told me.

I asked him to take me to the place I had put off.


I had only seen a few blocks of Glamour the last time I had been here, before I had condemned it to destruction. I feared for what I would see here. Instead, I found a bustling city. The arches and columns of the Lunar capital, had, for the most part, remained intact, undaunted by the absence of magic. True, some things had fallen, but overall what I saw was a people and an Empire carrying on business as usual.

Someone had explained this to me when I was in Nochet. That Orlanthi and the other Gods are the Gods of Heroquesters and rebels because they are about change and revolution. By their nature, they live in an unstable world. However, there were few heroquesters among the Lunars, because their power was that of stability, order and status quo. Again, another example of the contradiction of this Empire, a land embracing Chaos and yet given to Order. These people had seen drastic changes and yet they carried on. This was the power of the Empire.

I heard much in the streets, rumors about the new Red Emperor. I heard tales of how the Wane of magic had reached across the Empire, destroying much of the power of the land. How people, drawn together and praying to support the force of the Empires magic had felt it dissipate, how those in charge had been driven mad…how the people had flooded out into the streets to see the Moonbridge fall like sparks from the Sky…how the Moon had gone Blood Red and then Blackened and then fought back and forth across the sky before plunging to the ground like a great Red Sun…how everyone who had watched it had thought they would die in that moment…how they had been blinded…and once they could see, the moon was once again in the sky…a pale red, not Crimson, and smaller than it had ever appeared.

The Glowline had been reduced. Many tools of the Empire had fallen, the Imperial Magic Schools, the Mad Sultanate, the Crimson Bat…The Red Emperor appeared in the capital, backed by the Cult of the Red Emperor and the Wardens of the Black Fleet. He established order. Even at the same time, the army straggled back as best it could, marching disordered through Sartar and Tarsh…harassed and ambushed, perhaps half of it making it back within the Lunar borders. Tarsh, Sartar, Jarst Garsting, Cincor, Talastar, the Redlands, and others…each in turn declaring themselves free of the Lunar Empire. None strong enough to challenge it directly, and all too divided to unite against their enemy. Anarchy reigned, then the Red Emperor came forward.

The Far Provinces, Heortland, Pavis, Zothique, and Vemdeez…these were released from the Empire. Now, the Empire would be made up of the Lunar Heartland, Carmania and the Dara Happan Tripolis, less Alkoth. Even so, this would take a toll. Nione months afterwards, the noises had begun, the Carmanians and Dara Happans at each others’ throats and in turn plotting against the Empire.

I could see the strain on Zol’s face. We met in private and there he seemed smaller, not nine feet tall, but perhaps eight. He still bore the Serpent Blade and the Sword of Power…a short sword, now fused like that and empowered with the magic that Zol himself possessed. His coral armor had gone a deep red. I noticed these details, how much had changed, and yet how much he was still Zol. He’d introduced me to his father and his two brothers like an old friend. Which I guess I was, still it was striking.

Eventually Destis arrived. He was dressed more formally. I had heard his name in the streets, they called him the “Shadow of the Emperor”. It was said that together they formed an Emperor stronger than any before, even in the absence of the direct touch of the Red Goddess. For a brief moment I thought about returning the Lich potion to him, but then decided against it.

There, in the Chambers of the Lunar Empire, the place from which the fate of Virocana had been directed and commanded, we sat and ate a nice meal. We chatted about people and old friends. I talked of how Kallyr Starbrow had taken the leadership of Sartar, and had married the Feathered Horse King. I told how Carmalson had managed to complete the trials of Kingship and take the crown of Heortland. I mentioned how Brian of Volsaxi had mysteriously died soon after.

At the mentioned of Brian’s death Zol and Destis looked at each other. Destis smiled.

“Poor Barbarian.”
We talked about the Empire. They saw that there would be trouble for some time, but eventually that would be calmed. Carmania would eventually war upon its neighbors and have its nose bloodied. Dara Happa could be kept in check by the threats from Tarsh and elsewhere. It would not be a perfect solution, but peace could be maintained. The Empire would leave Sartar and the other places alone.

“There will be peace…and once the people are used to peace, then the Empire can be a force for good.” Zol said. “And if they do not wish peace…”

“…then we will show them peace is the best option.” Destis said, finishing Zol’s sentence.


I eventually left Glamour, in spite of the wonder of it, because I had finally found the last piece of information I needed.

I found him in a back alley restaurant of Karse. I’d followed the trail of food poisoning and strange chaos lunches across the continent.

The kitchen was dirty and disgusting, a perfect place to ply his trade.

“Hello, Miguel…” I said so softly he could barely hear it…before I struck as painfully as I could.


And full circle I’ve come. Back in Nochet. I’m nervous…standing outside of Lady Wailingsong’s house. I’ve brought gifts of course, presents for her and her children. I’ve given her a year to mourn, traveling around the continent to clear my own head. I’m back in Nochet and a little more frightened of talking to a woman than of the city.

I knock on the door.