Paper and Dice

Gaming from an author's point of view, and fiction from a gamer's point of view.

No, Really

Sunday, February 21, 2010 - 4:04 PM

Barim had done a fair number of things in his greasy, turbulent life that he regretted. The money was usually the reason, and he was the sort of man who had very expensive habits, so he just kept doing things he didn't want to think about. After a while, it became a kind of repugnant ritual.

Sitting in the dismal environs of Cove, he was twice as uncomfortable as normal. Cove was not a place for the weak; there were always shadows watching and waiting behind the decrepit wood and stone corners of Cove's muddy streets. Barim was not a man to be trifled with, certainly; he started as a paid murderer and later dabbled in sorcery. But desperation can drive someone to do foolish things, and Barim often reminded himself that more people are killed by fools than any other type of person. Caution was his watchword.

However, he was especially nervous at the moment because of the work he was waiting to be paid for. It seemed simple enough, if extremely unpleasant, and he was promised ample payment for it. You have a friend who is a sorcery master, they'd told him. Have the sorceror open you a doorway to the place called Ni'rhus, and there will be someone waiting for you. Use your contacts and skills to take this person into the Sanctum of Voloth Pridefallen, and leave him there. Afterwards, send your men out to start rumors that a Lady Angharad had gone to Hell on a quest.

He knew the Sanctum from his studies on sorcery, so he assumed that this person would be someone very unpopular. The place was crawling with devils. His heart was cold about leaving anyone at the Shrine, but money was money and his stores of kehtallah were running low.
But he got a brief look at the bound and unconscious man, and recognized the noble features immediately. Worse, when he finally got back again, he found out his sorceror friend had vanished without a trace.

They are not paying me enough for this, he thought. If anyone finds out what I did, nothing will save me. And I think someone does know.

His contact sat down. The man was thin and indifferent, with an exceptionally pointed nose that comprised his one and only distinguishing characteristic. “Work is finished?”

“Yes,” said Barim quietly. “Just as you asked.” He narrowed his eyes at the man. “I hope you know how important it is to keep my work a secret.”

“Yes,” said the man without inflection. “We are very much aware.”

Barim felt the fight before it happened. As in so many times before, his blades were out before he consciously understood he was being attacked, and two of his attackers were down. One gasped out life through his ripped throat, the other was dead instantly by a precise blow through the heart. But there were others, pressing too hard for him to try a spell. Quickly, he dodged and spun to gain ground and escape, wounding two more badly but he was astonished at how good they were.

These are far better than veteran soldiers or second-rank assassins, he thought in shock. This must be an expensive ambush.

Even so, he killed another of them with a whistling cut to the inner thigh and a follow-up that split the man's temple. But then a spike of agony drove itself into the back of his head, and he fell, dazed. He struggled to get up again, but then hands were on him, binding and twisting. There were several more blows, and then a voice said, “No, I need him awake.”

Abruptly, he found himself looking at the ice-water gray eyes of a woman with tidy features and a wicked scar running up her neck over her jawline. He had a brief impression of short, glossy black hair and the start of memory that said he'd seen her somewhere before, somewhere important.

“So precious,” said the woman. “We need you some more, Barim, we need you. But not with what you know.”

Something happened to Barim's mind. It folded in on itself, smoldered in spots and quickly grew black like a piece of paper in a fire. When he woke again, he was in a silk and velvet bed at the Chained Nymph inn, and he only remembered a very successful night of gambling and drinking. With all his newfound money, there was no need for a job, which was good because he'd been looking for one for far too long

Sitting up and stretching, it suddenly occurred to him that he'd never been to the great city of Yhelm. He quickly decided to pay it a call after another day in the pleasure city of Arn. Some part of him had this nagging sensation that he'd forgotten something important, but he dismissed it as a result of getting too drunk the night before.


Thursday, February 18, 2010 - 5:51 PM

“I heard a rumor,” said Kelvic, and then took a long pull of his beer.

Chas, huge hands busy with sorting bottles and mugs, glanced at Kelvic for a moment and then at Shar and Gimble, sitting off to one side. The long stretch of bar counter was dominated at the far end by a raucous crowd of well-wishers, pickpockets, unemployed bards and a trio who had emerged from the Tower of Folly with some actual treasure for a change.

“Go on then,” said Chas.

“I heard,” said Kelvic, his thin face furtive as he paused for dramatic effect. “I heard that Lady Angharad and her people... went into HELL.”

This completely failed to impress his three listeners. Chas didn't even change expression. Shar looked skeptically at Kelvic, and downed another swallow of his liquor. Gimble looked as if he were trying to understand what Kelvic just said.

“Hell,” said Gimble slowly. “Hell like... Tower of Folly hell? Hellbore hell?”

“No, you damned stonebrains, I mean HELL. Pit of. Godprison. The Great Hall of Perdition. Dominion of the Iron Crown.”

“What in the world would they go there for?” drawled Shar, pouring himself another glass. “At least you can come back from the Tower with something. Sounds like mule crap to me.”

“Fine, call it mule crap. But I'll tell you what I think.”

“I don't want to hear it, but you're going to tell me anyway.”

Kelvic gave them all a smug look. “I think they are going there to find Martel's soul, and kill him for good.”

Despite the astonishingly unlikely nature of the scenario, Kelvic's listeners had to admit this sounded very impressive.

“Where'd you hear this?” asked Chas, folding his arms and leaning back against the shelves.

“Word's just floating around, I tell you. Ashan, the City-Maker, he knows how to open a door to Hell. Aren't his people friends to the underworld? It's true.”

Gimble, thinking very hard indeed, sipped at his wine and started to speak. At this point, one of the unemployed bards lost a lot of clothing to the applause of the large party, and Gimble was distracted into silence. Shar, on the other hand, snorted.

“I've been to the Hellbore, out with the Gold-and-Stone Company, and I've even been to Meerashandalai's island. Hell's worse than that? Yeah, I'll say Angharad knows her business; she took Martel, didn't she. And Hope. And she's run the Tower. But Hell? Nah, she would have run Meerashandalai's first. That's as close to Hell as I ever want to get.”

“True words,” rumbled Chas.

“Lady Angharad's still redeeming the honor of her family,” said Gimble, half-distracted now. “Everybody knows that. And didn't you see the play? The priest WOULD follow her into Hell. And her friends, too. They're loyal to her.”

“See? Even Gimble 'All Rationality' Mariikson agrees,” said Kelvic. “I'll say it again, Lady Angharad's company will outstrip even the Avabrondan, or the Throttled Cat!”

“You never said any such thing before,” muttered Shar.

Slapping the counter, Kelvic half stood. “I'm tired of your mouth, Shar! You just don't want to admit her group's better than yours!”

“That'll do,” interrupted Chas, and leaned forward. “I'll make you a wager, Kelvic, and this is it... I'll wager you room and board here, all the beer you can drink, for a month if she's actually gone into Hell and come back again. And if she hasn't, well, you'll be my scullery maid for a month instead with no pay.”

Shar started laughing, but Kelvic stood up and offered his hand. “Done!”

Taking the offered hand, Chas shook it briskly. “Oh, and Kelvic... she has to come back from Hell too for you to win the bet.” He grinned mirthlessly. “Anybody can get in, after all.”


Monday, February 8, 2010 - 6:52 PM

HRGH should be an acronym for a particular state of mind. Something disgruntled, vaguely annoyed and very pernicious, perhaps.

At this point, I know I don't happen to have a lot of readers, but I do apologize to those I have for the radio silence. Considering that you are all certainly here for fine reading and not to hear some regurgitation of an-all-too-ordinary life, I'll leave out the details and just say that my brain has been utterly exhausted for anything other than writing that I'd never post here.

No, seriously, it is that bad. Or unpolished. Whichever.

Anyway, I thought I might share some thoughts I tripped across while planning my next leg of DnD. As the reputation of the characters continues to grow, so do the misconceptions and assumptions. While considering just what one nation or other might think of these people, I realized that this facet of becoming a hero is rarely touched on... at least, in my experience. In your so-called classic fantasy tale, the heroes are recognized for doing some great and vast thing, and everybody thinks they are wonderful. Occasionally, there's some opposition (usually in the form of a political contender or some other unscrupulous sort), but that's generally all until the Next Evil Guy shows up. Some people at this point may mention Game of Thrones about now, but that is NOT a classic fantasy novel. In fact, wonderful though the world and characterizations are, there really isn't anything happening on the same scale as your classic 'save the world from great Evil' story.

Now, I run my DnD games as something fairly gritty, and I stay away from a lot of the tropes present in what people usually call High Fantasy. This is largely because I find High Fantasy stories to be predictable, trite and ... uninteresting. I like happy endings, of course, but the usual High Fantasy tale reads like everything is staged and stilted. I always feel like the heroes didn't really earn it. This is especially true in just about any story with a Prophecy in it. There's a whiff of predestination in prophecy stories that makes you wonder why the poor villains bother in the first place. It isn't any wonder that, given what people expect from fantasy, most fantasy novels don't spend a lot of time considering the problems of being suddenly very popular.

My players realized how much weight their characters had in the campaign world last session, and they've started to discover what that means. Word does get around, and at this point, thousands of people who have never actually met the characters know who they are and something about what they've done. Now, they are dealing with racial stereotypes and cultural expectations. People are attempting to gain their support for political causes, as well as involve them in various ventures. People want to be seen with them because they are famous. Some of the characters have recently suffered a slew of marriage offers, and the priest had to deal with an intensely talented but extremely annoying method actor who wanted to 'get a feel for' who he was. They've discovered that some people don't actually care so much about their heroic deeds. These people just want to make use of the fame and fortune.

This, and some work on With Iron, got me thinking about the villain side of the fame coin. Just as there would be some who don't believe the heroes have actually done all they say, there would certainly be some who think of the famous villain as misunderstood or wronged or even heroic, depending on how they view the villain's activities. Imagine the startlement of a band of heroes attempting to apprehend some unpleasant killer when they encounter a peasant village who refuses to tell them where the killer is. "Because of him, all the bandits are dead. He saved us," they say.

Perspective is a clever, clever thing.

When in Doubt

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 - 10:28 AM

Chas the Bull, publican of the Blue Shadow inn, folded his hamhock arms and leaned back against the racks of liquor with a grin. The two men in front of him continued the debate.

“And after they destroyed Hope, they came marching out from the crypt entrance, and challenged that bastard Beckhardt right there,” said the thin man with great intensity. His thin face was bright-eyed with the story, and his gloved hands danced like swallows in front of him. From his golden complexion, dark hair, and pointed features he was a Purayu.

The other man, elbows on the bar and brooding over a tankard, was heavy in the shoulders and brows, with a good many fighting scars on his forearms. He shook his head slowly. “That's not what I heard. I heard that, when the sky cleared, Beckhardt's army found them crawling up out of the grave dirt. And then Beckhardt threw down his sword.”

“That makes no sense,” interjected the Purayu. “Why would he do that? And if they were buried in grave dirt, how did they fight Hope?”

“If I knew the answer, I'd be working for Lady Angharad and not hiring out to protect you,” came the bleak reply.

This made the Purayu scoff. He was polite about it; it was just a sudden arch of the eyebrows and a faint sneer. Chas' grin widened slightly, but he straightened up to remind the two that he was there. Egos got touchy in a place like the Blue Shadow. It was a place where old veteran adventurers would come to trade stories about their glory days, and discuss how hard it had been to retire from The Life. A lot of adventurers came through there to meet the famous and prove their own place, and some of them got pretty terse about it.

Of course, Chas had built the Blue Shadow in Last Chance, which was a town that wouldn't even exist except for the notorious Tower of Folly. The Tower loomed about two miles out of town, and Last Chance started as a cluster of merchants waiting to capitalize on the steady stream of desperate treasure hunters and foolhardy glory seekers who attempted to brave the Tower. Now it was a town of its own, populated by the sons of merchants and the adventurers who confronted the absurd lethality of the Tower and decided to retire.

Even though very little of interest had come out of the Tower in recent years, it had become a kind of pilgrimage for people who dealt in sudden death and heroic violence. They would come to Last Chance, spend a lot of money to celebrate or bolster their courage, and then go to wander the now-emptied entry halls of the Tower. The brave (or stupid) went much further, and most of them didn't come out again.

“Lady Angharad has to have actors and bards run around to protect her reputation,” continued the Purayu. “The common man is my herald. Everyone knows that I won the Rout of Dardanti. I was in Pesh for the Ogre War, and I even fought a gavarrhan in the wasteland of the Dohoroz. Hope was some kind of washed out healer turned bad, from what I hear. Not so impressive.”

“Maybe so,” said the brooding man. “But her people killed Martel.”

The counter got quiet for a moment. Hope was something abstract, a shadow from a legend up north where the Leandrites sang of holy war and danced in their courtly tapestries. But Martel was real to many of them. Many had lost friends, lovers, parents, children to Martel. Even dead, Martel's reputation loomed in their minds.

“If they did,” said the Purayu politely, “They must have gotten lucky. Or Martel wasn't as dangerous as all that.”

Chas laughed, and some of the grizzled, jade-eyed people drinking alone at the bar smiled. Chas rarely laughed, but when he did, it was to put someone in their place.

“You never fought Martel,” announced Chas to the Purayu man, who looked unimpressed. Chas poured himself some mead, looking down at the Purayu with his small, sharp eyes. “But I did, and if it wasn't for my companions, I'd be dead right now.”

Even if anyone doubted Chas, it was bad form to dispute the reputation of the man serving you drink, but the Purayu's hesitation was enough for Chas to push on. “We went against Martel, six of us. We were four when we escaped him, and we might have been less but Martel let us go. Who can say why? The Gorecrow liked to mock his foes.” Chas took a deep pull from his mug. “Lady Angharad went for him with only her three companions, and the fight burned down part of Arn. So, even if I had no grudge for Martel, I tell you that I'd respect her and hers for finally bringing the monster down.”

There was a murmur of assent from many of the older adventurers, and then someone lifted their tankard.

“Death of Martel,” he intoned in a somber voice.

“May the slain be content at last,” intoned another.

“Death of Martel,” filled the Blue Shadow, and then silence as most of the occupants drank.

Chas, mug emptied, looked down at the Purayu again. “Heading into the Tower?”

“...yes, of course. I've six companions, and this worthy here.”

The brooding man lifted his drink slightly in acknowledgment. “Slayer's Brotherhood, second class.”

Chas bumped the man's tankard with his mug for acknowledgment, and then nodded at the Purayu. “Good luck. I do have a question, though... you said you'd fought the gavarrhan. Well, I never have, but I have a couple of friends who did, and they told stories that made me lose my hair. So, did you win?”

The Purayu man blinked, started to say something, and then stopped.


Something Different?

Friday, December 4, 2009 - 3:42 PM

One of the problems with blogging is coming up with something to say, when your words have been used up on expansive research papers or fragmentary but brilliant notes that never grow into anything brighter. It is even more difficult if you don't happen to be prone to small talk, and prefer to only speak when you have something very particular to say.

Aside from the grind of school work and the flurry of life as a busy middle-aged professional, I've had little time to dedicate to my work outside of random one or two page spats here and there. I've had a couple of promising stories evolve in directions that destroyed the original intent of the story, and rebirthed themselves as something entirely different... and in one case, I can forgive that. The story happens to be something fairly promising.

But frankly, I'm tired of something being promising. I'm tired of hammering away at projects I feel no fire for, and it seems ages since I've had a drop of inspiration. Ask me to come up with fresh ideas, and I can spin them forever, but none of the ideas I come up with at the moment particularly appeal to me. They all seem a little too much like work to be pleasant, and right now, I'd like to be working on something pleasant.

Where does a piece of writing cross the line? When does it happen? Everything I come up with these days ends up lifeless, and I cannot seem to resuscitate my writing. I find it particularly entertaining that after a long period of silence, I find myself writing here about being unable to write.

Oh, the agony and the irony.


Oh My Goodness

Saturday, October 17, 2009 - 9:55 PM

Sometimes you blink and the time whistles by like a bullet. By the time you figure out where the bullet came from, you have to dodge the next bullet. Now I've got some cover.
Just a couple of odd notes: First, given all the time I'm spending at a college these days, I'd like to mention that my experience of the average men's bathroom puts considerable doubt into our reproductive method. Seriously, the accuracy is Lacking. I'm amazed our population is as high as it is. I've heard tell that women's bathrooms are worse, but I have my doubts.
Second, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is lodged in my brainstem. This means I have Kurtz, in stereo, 24/7. The horror!
What follows is a kind of warm-up for a game session that I am working on. Yes, it is postmodern, surreal and fragmented. But I like tossing things like this out for players.

"The Lady is indisposed. Come back another time."

From a cobwebbed balcony, he watches the gray dancers below as they gust back and forth over the dance circle. They laugh and smile and touch with eyes, but they are silent, and their music is a succession of thin, strange memories that tangle the air like the clinging gossamer that blankets everything in the place. He watches them, forever apart, and he keeps no opinion. They are different from what was, and so is he; even his oath is finished, a trail of blood-stained shards leading back to a day when the court shone with art and beauty and he bent the knee to a great lady. And yet, he remains.
He must keep them safe. The Mother of Terror nests above, and must be watched over. Even in a place where forever can be measured, things must be done in the proper time, and time must be dealt with properly.
But caught in the timeless, he is alone, more than he has ever been. Once, it was his way. Now he has little choice. There is only one other court in the Manor now, and he will not go there.

"All I wish is to be free, but I keep my promise."

She must always run.
Her companions would help, but they fear him even more than she does. She cannot go back to her home, because it is full of memories that kill. She cannot go back to her brethren, because they are locked to a court where death cannot exist and a monster lords over them with his pain. So, proud as she has been, she must run, because he is always searching. The sky is her enemy; the black birds will show him the trail. The trees do not talk to him, but he moves through them as easily as the wind. Once, the gate was open, but now she must race back and forth, because of the day when the second palace burned and the humans died and the Manor drifted into slumber.
She cannot go back, and she cannot leave, because she will not abandon her beloved friend. One day she may know whether she can be let go, but until then she must escape his attention. He is all unfeeling animal fury and hunger and anticipation, and she knows that running makes him chase her, but she is too afraid to stay still.
One day she may know, and then perhaps her promise will no longer be needed.

"Dreams? There are no dreams here. Everything is real."

Three, they watch the thing move slowly through a forest so gnarled and twisted that it is difficult to tell one tree from the next. The thing is equally awkward; all stilts and scarecrow, it moves like a crippled insect. But the three look next to the drifting lights that follow it, and the dark one nods.
"Something else comes," she whispers, and the other two pay attention; one swiftly, one slowly.
"For blood and wealth," says the hard-eyed one, and she smiles like an opened razor.
"Dancing, and then love, and then sleep," murmurs the third as if remembering.
"Foolish," bites the second. "One does not come here for joy."
"There is no joy in you," retorts the third, but her eyes are sleepy, and she strokes her clothing.
"What good is joy," snaps the second again, the sneer implicit. Her fists are clenched. "Joy is transient. It cannot last."
"Ah," sighs the third, touching her lips. "No matter how cold, your joy is enough. I have seen that."
The second cannot rebuke the third, because both fall silent at the whisper.
"Oh, the threads of the old shadow are coming, the old shadow unraveled and rewoven. The old shadow who left us before we were bound here. Come, sisters; we must sing."

"Redemption, like sin, is a human word, for human ideas. We tried to understand them, and it ruined us."

They watch over him. He stands, mid-step, his hair fanning out as if the wind around him had suddenly turned to ice, and the light that filters down through the glorious dome breaks around him through the uneven, pinkish crystal he resides within. They are small, dwarfed by the opalescence of the memorial tomb around him, and the place makes them restless, makes them feel alien and left out, just like his beauty does. They have accepted as much as they can, but they can do nothing for him. There is only the exorbitant tomb, full of the pale pinnacles of song from a hundred gold and diamond birds, full of sculpture so smooth that it seems grown, full of engravings so delicate and precise that the walls are a book. And yet, all this is not enough for him, and they fester at the inadequacy.
They want to belong.

"If you lose, I can go. If I lose, you can go. Simple."

Sometimes the ache and the longing was overwhelming. It was impossible to count how many deaths occurred here, nor how many times his companions changed. Others would come. Some went around him, dodged his wary eyes, and were snared. Others met him and he threw himself against them, a tornado of frustration and will. There was no point in warning them; nothing would come of it, save more blood among the flowers or another statue in the hall.
It had been too long, he thought, but he remembered fearing the dana aelf and their ways, and he remembered years of howling exultation, of steel and sweat and heat and breath. Sometimes the writing almost spoke to him, as if it could give him all that time back again, but everything else was nothing more than the hollow sounds of the great hall and the compelling oath, the silent and invisible goad that prickled over his heart like brambles.
He loved so much that he had no choice, and he no longer dreamt. He had heard that no one dreamt here, but then, he was more part of the hall than a human being now.
Watching the woods, he tapped a finger on his weapon, and waited for destiny to arrive.

"I cannot reconcile the fact of my son."

There is a mirror. He spends time staring at himself in the mirror, and it shivers like a pool of blood when his eyes touch it. Others do this too, when his eyes touch them. He is aware, but he is indifferent.
He picks up a crystal goblet, practically invisible but for its shape.
This, he thinks, is nothing but a collection of wounds that have not yet happened.
As if to punctuate this thought, he lets the goblet fall from his hand to shatter into jagged, beautiful points, scattered across a polished floor.
He studies this casual act of ruin for a long moment, and then realizes that there has been a lull in the singing. Turning slowly, looking past the bower of long-thorned white roses, he sees the crescent of shapes made ghostly by a waxing moon.
They attend me because they crave me, he thinks, not because they wish to.
Their singing resumes, another of the old songs (which he loves, though the songs have grown as pale as the space between them and the moon), and he turns away again to face the mirror.
What must I do, he thinks, and in a fit of sudden rage, he points at the shattered goblet.
"I wish for my court to dance."

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Writing Pains

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 - 8:50 PM

I've been doing a great deal of writing lately, but I'm afraid none of it would be interesting except to scholars of literary criticism. Though it is certainly good practice, it doesn't scratch the creative itch very much. As a result, my writing brain is feeling increasingly restless, as if it just had a very large dinner composed entirely of popcorn. It wants something rich, fulfilling.

Work on my various projects has been slow, largely due to new workloads and some changes in schedule. Part of writing is always about schedules, and I'm afraid my creative outlets are just going to have to suffer a bit until I get back into a decent work rhythm. The small random bits of fiction I've been doing to whet my inspiration's appetite haven't been bad, but they really don't go anywhere for me.

However, as a very pleasant bit of news, I recently sent a copy of Dungeon magazine to writer Richard Pett for an autograph. My friends had so much fun with the dinner party for 'Prince of Redhand' that I wanted Mr. Pett to know about it, and it remains one of my absolute favorite adventures in any publication. Mr. Pett was very gracious about it all, and along with the autographed magazine, he sent his regards and thanks to all of you who participated. He was very entertained with my account of how things went, and very pleased that we enjoyed his work so much. If I'm ever in England, I'll have to be sure to stop in and cook for the man.

So, hey, all you players who made the Redhand dinner party happen? Take a bow.

That is one of the most rewarding aspects of creation for me; the trading of inspiration, and the wonder of seeing what other people do with the works you create. Of course, sometimes you run into the horrors of bad fanfic, but there is always going to be someone out there who sees a vision in your vision that you have never seen. When they describe it to you, your own breadth of vision is amplified and enhanced, and you add another color to your palette. Creative interplay of this sort occurs very often in RPGs, which is one reason I keep on playing them, and I am thankful for knowing as many clever, imaginative players and GMs as I do.

More when the sparks light up the kindling.