Wednesday, November 30, 2016

fiction in progress


I'm not sure what this is besides practice for me at writing fiction again after years and years away from it.
I'm sure some people are wondering why I'm not writing some The King is Dead fiction instead of some kind of weird Forgotten Realms fan fiction; the simplest answer is that I'd need to do more expository heavy lifting than I feel comfortable with at this point. (I am so, so out of practice with fiction.)
I'm going to update this page directly as I write more. I've got a wacky idea of maybe sticking in an appendix of character stats or something like that and selling this at the Dungeon Masters Guild -- if the story actually comes together. If I get far enough with it that putting it up for sale seems likely, then I'll probably stop uploading to here.



"Zzar.”

Elonwy looked up, an eyebrow arched in confusion. Tombold stared back at her, a handful of coins in his bloodied hand.

“What the hell is zzar?” she asked, turning back to patting down the hobgoblin corpse. She hoped that its coin purse would be easy to find; she didn’t relish pawing under its armor or stripping the creature to find some valuables.

“Y'know, you’re always talking smack about Waterdeep and you barely know anything about it...“ Tombold started to reply.

Elonwy cut him off. “I know everything I need to know about Waterdeep.” She felt a promising bulge on the hobgoblin’s hip beneath his baldric. She gingerly fondled it, hoping to feel gems or coins, hoping it didn’t squirm. She vomited sightly in her mouth at the thought of the palm-sized tick on that one orc from last week.

“No, you don’t,” her companion continued. He dumped the coins in his satchel and wiped the hobgoblin blood off on his trousers. “The simple fact of the matter is that Waterdeep has a much better booze scene than Silverymoon and zzar is all the proof you need.” He walked over and crouched down beside the young half-elf. “Y’know, he’s not going to bite. His head would have to be attached for that to happen.”

“Tick.”

“Oh, yeah. Tick… That was… educational.”

Elonwy unbuckled the hobgoblin’s baldric – it was tooled leather, competently made, and might be worth something to a traveler wishing to impress his family down south – and pulled up the dead creature’s tunic. Thankfully, the jangling bulge was indeed a coin-filled canvas bag. She spilled a few into her hand; they were an odd assortment of familiar human coins from the surface and odd ones she could only guess were from the Underdark. The ones with the spiders on them were presumably drow.

“Wow, these guys were really carrying some gelt,” Tombold said, sidling up close to Elonwy. This close, the dark, spicy scent of his half-orc sweat and myrrh cologne made her head swim. “I’ve got to admit,” he growled in her ear, “that a close-won fight like this just makes me want to – celebrate life, y’know?”

She cursed herself for feeling the same way; it was half the reason she was half the reason she was tromping around the Coldwood with a frickin’ bard instead of something useful like a druid or another ranger. Elonwy stashed away the coins and put her hand on Tombold’s thigh.

“Fine, but I’m not doing it in sight of a pile of corpses. And we need to be quick in case there’s another patrol.”


***

Afterwards, as she laced up her breeches, Elonwy asked, “So what the heck is zzar?”

Tombold didn’t hear her ask the first time. His brain was still foggy with lust – or love – or longing – or whatever it was he felt. He tried not to define it, refusing to give it words. Words have meanings, after all.

The half-elf ranger asked again and Tombold came back to his senses. There was a reason he brought up zzar in the first place.

“Sluth fortified with almond brandy.” She did that cocked eyebrow thing, so he kept talking. “Sluth is a dry white wine. The Thanns brought the sluth varietal north from their holdings down in Tethyr, where it originally grew on the hills above the River Sluth. The southern style is to make sweet sluth wine, but it worked better for dry wines. Most of the vines are around Rassalantar.”

Tombold paused to fish a small glassteel bottle out of his satchel. He shook the bottle slightly, splashing the orange-colored liquid against the sides to run down in thick, luxurious legs. Elonwy wet her lips, obviously intrigued. Tombold handed her the bottle and she took a tentative sip.

“Alright,” she sighed, “I will admit that this is really, really nice.” She took another sip, mouthing the wine to get the full flavor. She cocked her eyebrow again and experimentally tapped the bottle. “How much did you pay for the glassteel?”

He’d spent half of his take from their last several jobs on that bottle, but Tombold didn’t want to admit the exact amount. “I just wanted to make sure that when I finally got ahold of some zzar, I could carry it without tainting the taste with leather or pewter. Y’know, leather’s great for dry red still wines, but it would wreck a fortified wine like this.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” the half-elf admitted. She quirked a smile at him. The bard was torn between fear that she’d drink the rest of the bottle and joy at seeing her relax. Elonwy was always so serious, even angry, when they were on an adventure. Sometimes he wondered why she even became a ranger – and whether he’d ever be able to get her to go more than a tenday’s walk from Silverymoon. She handed the glassteel bottle back to him.

Tombold made the kind of dumbass decision he always made about Elonwy. “No, keep it,” he said. “I bought it for you,” he lied.

She froze for a moment like a drow caught in sunlight, then Elonwy gave Tombold a zzar-flavored kiss and unsheathed a knife. “Do you want to help me harvest the ears?” she asked.

***

With the ears stowed away and the bodies looted, Elonwy led Tombold back through the forest. Only an hour remained before sunset and darkness already loomed in the Coldwood. Though both of them had inherited darkvision from their non-human parent, Elonwy didn’t want to risk an encounter with a nocturnal predator.

She cursed when she came across the close-packed mess of bones and hide. Longer than a halfling is tall, a pair of broken antlers jutted out from one end. She reluctantly knelt and touched an ungloved hand to the mass. It was sticky and warm. “Gods damn it,” she hissed.

“So, that’s gross…” Tombold offered.

“It’s an owlbear pellet – fur and bones and other stuff it can’t digest. I found my skinning knife in one,” Elonwy answered.

“Also gross.”

“It’s warm and wet and that means the owlbear who spit this up is nearby. It’s also been about half a day since it ate, so it could be hungry.”

“I think we can take an owlbear. We took out half a dozen hobgoblins.”

Elonwy glared at Tombold. “I don’t want to fight it. It might be half of a mated pair; it might have cublets. More importantly, it would be a dangerous and unnecessary waste of time and resources. We still might have vengeful hobgoblins tracking us.”

She doubted that hobgoblins were after them. The ragged condition of the group they ambushed made her suspect they were either deserters or a patrol from the mountains lost in the woods. It was just easier something Tombold would probably take more serious than her reluctance to fight an animal just trying to feed itself.

The half-orc looked chastened. She felt a pang of guilt, but it was his fault for not taking things seriously. That’s what Waterdeep did to people.

“Alright… you’re the ranger,” he said quietly.

Elonwy led them quickly back to the flet they used when visiting that arm of the Coldwood. A score of rangers – friends, friends of friends, people who shared mentors or students or just drank together when they were in town – maintained the camouflaged blinds in the canopy as a courtesy for their peers. Stocked with caches of dried foodstuffs and pure water, the flets provided a superior alternative to camping on the ground within easy reach of predators and monsters.

“Give me a boost,” Elonwy commanded in a whisper. Tombold made a stirrup of his hands and helped her jump up to a branch ten feet off the ground. She fumbled around for the rope to climb up to the flet and cursed quietly when she couldn’t find it, panicking for a moment before she realized what that meant. “Hey! Is there somebody up there?” she shouted up at the tree top in Common and then Elvish.

A pale face – barely a blob on the edge of her darkvision – peered over the side of the platform. “Oh, hey! Elonwy, is that you?” answered a male voice in Elvish.

“Mielikki, take me now,” she muttered to herself.

An ominous, rumbling hoot sounded nearby in the forest.

***

The elf waiting for them on the flet wore nothing except light linen breeches, which seemed pretty cavalier to Tombold. It might be early summer, but it wasn’t that warm. It was never that warm in the Coldwood; that’s why people called it that.

On the other hand, he wasn’t sure if the drow wore anything except her long silver-white hair. He found it difficult to complain about that, even if he had to keep his eyes firmly trained elsewhere.

Elonwy paused. He knew her well enough to recognize she was assessing the situation with the same guardedness she devoted to an ambush site or strange tracks on the forest floor. A sinking feeling plummeted down Tombold’s stomach. This handsome nudist must be an ex-boyfriend.

The owlbear hoot-growled at the base of the tree. Tombold wished he was down there.

“Mithiel, it’s good to see you,” Elonwy said without much enthusiasm. Shirtless Mithiel didn’t seem to notice, greeting her with a full-bodied embrace and kissing her cheeks. The observably naked drow offered Tombold the same courtesy and then embraced the surprised Elonwy. She grimaced and shrugged at Tombold over the drow’s shoulders, indicating what he assumed was an apology.

“Friend of my heart, it has been too long in your short life since I have known the joys of your company,” Mithiel answered in Elvish. “This is Verralka. She’s Eilistraeen.” 

“Are you from the Promenade of the Dark Maiden?” asked Tombold in Elvish, interrupting the smug, shirtless elf.  

Mithiel glowered for a moment, but Verralka smiled, her glowing red eyes twinkling. “No, I’m afraid not. You know the Promenade?”

“By reputation only, I’m afraid,” said Tombold.

Elonwy abruptly switched to Common. “I’m pleased to meet you, Verralka. I’m Elonwy Calentari, a former pupil and partner of Mithiel, and this is my current partner, Tombold… um… Rageblood.” 

Tombold wasn’t sure which was worse: Elonwy’s use of the word “partner” or her embarrassment over his surname. Elvish had a dozen different words for “lover” to indicate the seriousness of the relationship; “partner” was just ambiguous enough to let the elf with the abs interpret things however he wanted.

“Rageblood, huh? So you’re a half-orc, I take it?” asked Mithiel, a bland smile on his sparkly-white face.

Verralka seemed genuinely surprised. “You couldn’t tell?”

“I take after my grandparents,” Tombold said, sticking with Common. “I’m second-generation half-orc,” he answered to the unspoken question. “Born and raised in Waterdeep.” He unpinned his cloak and unslung his yarting. The strings jangled a bit as he laid it on the flet’s floor.

The drow smiled; the elf raised a cocked eyebrow. Tombold wondered what else Elonwy picked up from the shirtless wonder.

The damned owlbear scratched at the tree trunk, hooting at the four-course meal out of its reach.
 The tree was sturdy, but still swayed slightly against the owlbear’s aggression. Tombold looked over the railing, disconcerted to see the monstrosity had managed to climb a few feet up the trunk. Mithiel crossed to stand beside him and hissed in consternation.

“Fine, let’s kill the damned owlbear,” Ellonwy sighed.

***

Afterwards – after the brief flurry of steel and claws, after the blood and silence, after the dirty practicality of moving the heavy body away from the flet so as not to attract predators and scavengers during the night – Ellonwy downed the remaining zzar. It was just enough to make her head swim agreeably.

The moon and stars shone through the canopy. Verralka – perhaps in order to cut off a lecture about the constellations from Mithiel, or perhaps simply as an excuse to show off – had asked Tombold to play a song and now danced in the center of the platform, her silver-white hair catching the pale light as it swirled around her naked body. Ellonwy watched Tombold studiously ignore the drow, closing his eyes to pretend he was lost in the music.

Except he might not be pretending...

Ellonwy had seen Tombold enraptured by his art before when playing for the crowd at the Bright Blade Brandished, or when playing for her alone in the rooms they rented near Hunters’ Gate. Despite what so many Silveraen muttered behind Tombold’s back (and her own, she assumed), Ellonwy had always found the half-orc ruggedly handsome; when he lost himself in music, though, he was beautiful.

Right now, he was heartbreaking.

The half-elf yawned theatrically, mouth gaping and tongue curling like a cat. She stretched, noticing that the bard’s eyes were now half-open. She blinked.

“Are you tired?” asked Tombold. He headed off objections from the elf and drow by stating “We’ve been up since before dawn. We tracked down some hobgoblins and – y’know – it’s been a big day.”

“Yeah. Darkvision, shmarkvision… It’s still easier to travel by day,” Ellonwy chimed in. “Could you put up the hut? These two are probably moving more by night than day, and I don’t want to inconvenience them.”

He put down his yarting and began rearranging packs and cloaks. Ellonwy stepped to his side and whispered “Just the two of us,” and Tombold gathered up their equipment and began rearranging things again.

The bard fished a crystal bead out of a belt pocket as Ellonwy sat down beside him. After a few short words and arcane gestures, a glowing, purplish translucent dome bloomed from the crystal, harmlessly passing through the tree and leaving half the platform uncovered.

“Good night!” Ellonwy called to the two elves, whispering out of the side of her mouth “Make it opaque now!” The dome subtly darkened; inside, it was still translucent, but Ellonwy knew Mithiel and Verralka could no longer see inside the tiny hut.

“Are you okay? I mean, he’s kind of an ass, but I’m used to that crap. And I’m not flirting with Verralka; I think she just flirts with everyone,” Tombold babbled.

Ellonwy ignored him, laying out the bedrolls on top of each other. She hastily unbuckled her armor, tugged off her boots, and began peeling off her clothes. “I’m a little drunk and it’s been a bad day and I’d like it to end better than it began.” Finally naked, she lay back against the piled bedrolls. It was silly, it was pretentious, and it made her heart thunder, but she said “Come lay beside me, true companion of my heart and body.”

Tombold looked as surprised as she felt, but then he smiled. It showed his tusk-like lower canines; it was adorable. “Leomund’s tiny hut doesn’t stop sound, y’know. They’ll hear us,” he laughed.
 
“I really don’t frigging care,” Ellonwy answered.
***

Ellonwy, cuddling against Tombold, shook with barely-repressed laughter, tears streaming from her beautiful eyes. Tombold gave her a quick peck on the cheek, tasting those tears, and then went back to staring fixedly at the sky.

“I never expected this to happen,” she apologized.

“I guess they’re not aware that the spell is transparent from the inside? Or do they not care that we can see them having sex?” he asked.

“Not that we didn’t bring this on ourselves…”

Ellonwy propped herself up on Tombold’s chest. She blocked the sight of Mithiel’s buttocks in his peripheral vision, so he was more than willing to endure the pressure on his chest. Moods shifted across her face; she bit her lip, biting back a joke, but then the twinkle left her eyes. Tombold kissed her.

“Not that it wasn’t worth it,” he offered by way of apology.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Observations After a Game of Dungeon World


We did not actually visit a dungeon... yet.


I finally played a game of Dungeon World this weekend, and I’m conflicted about my responses.
 
I had a lot of fun. One of Robin’s old buddies ran the game, and he did a great job of keeping everyone engaged and active. I played a barbarian, so I got to be dumb and hilarious. Everyone had a good time.

EDITED TO ADD: I’m slightly more awake than when I started this post, so let me add some more things I liked about Dungeon World. The lack of a formal initiative or turn system means the action scenes really move with the fluidity of fiction, rather than the stilted (and sometimes inexplicable) fashion of most RPGs. Since classes in Dungeon World do damage based on their class rather than their weapon, it also meant that I could have my barbarian fight by using stunts like head-butting his opponent or throwing it against the wall rather than whipping out my sword for everything. The focus on the fiction also means that otherwise dull choices (like whatever the Help action is called) remain exciting within the context (in this case, trying to fling a hag into the path of shape-changed druid’s claws) whereas it’s dull as dirt in D&D 5e.

Sitting across from the GM, though, I kept imagining that I would be bored out of my mind if I never got to roll dice. For that matter, the collaborative world building and storytelling aspects of the game do require players to wear both actor hats and writer hats at the same time, which detracts from immersion (though only slightly in the game we played). My suspicions about the Apocalypse World Engine needing at least two players and a GM were confirmed as well; there’s way too much collaboration assumed to work as a duet game.
 
That said, though, I wonder if it would be possible to whittle away some of the collaborative assumptions in order to trim the mechanics back to better support duet play. I guess that if you just assume that when a mechanic asks for a bond or interaction from another player that it instead means an NPC character, then that could work. Hmm…
 
I’m intrigued enough that I started rereading my copies of Monster of the Week and Monsterhearts to get a better handle on AWE mechanics and concepts. Robin and I are currently playing an urban fantasy game and – despite owning Fae Nightmares and Marchland, the urban fantasy settings for Savage Worlds – we’re basically making up the setting as we go. Splicing together MotW and Monsterhearts might actually give me a simpler, player-focused structure for introducing a greater element of risk without having to work up stats for NPCs I’m making up on the spot.
 
Bleah. I’m rambling badly. It’s amazing how a four-day weekend can throw you off your schedule. (No, it isn’t. It’s bloody obvious.)
 
Other thoughts:
  • Yep, I can see where D&D 5e steals from Dungeon World.
  • Sam, the GM, in explaining the fiction-focused mechanics mentioned how one could not destroy a castle with a single sword blow since that generally isn’t accepted as part of the fiction – and then backtracked a little to say it would be possible if the group decided it was possible. I immediately started thinking about the over-the-top power levels of anime and manga heroes (well, I immediately thought “I damn well could destroy a castle in one blow if this was a Fairy Tail game”) and so spent last night poring through all 505 of the products DriveThruRPG has listed under the Apocalypse World Engine. While there are several anime-inspired Dungeon World playbooks, there aren’t any anime-inspired AWE hacks. This is a mistake. The fiction-focused mechanics of AWE could easily justify the way characters throw around explosive, mountain-crumbling attacks that their fellow fighters just shrug off.
  • There are a couple of obviously Avatar: The Last Airbender/The Legend of Korra-inspired AWE games on DTRPG. They could probably do Fairy Tail pretty well, but I’m still surprised someone hasn’t put together a "Shonen World" game that allows you to emulate everything from Attack on Titan to Yu Yu Hakusho. The playbooks would obviously be based off of the personality types – Blue Oni, Girly Girl, Lancer, Red Oni, Tomboy, etc. – rather than specific power sets, allowing the playbooks to be easily adapted to whatever the conceit of the setting is (baseball, mecha, supernatural martial arts, etc.). 
  • I’m very tempted to buy Spirit of ’77.
  • I did pay a buck for Monster Force Terra – a really short PWYW AWE kaiju game – which, weirdly, seems like it would work fine as a duet game. Maybe I could get Robin to run a game for me, since I doubt she'd want to play a brainless force of destruction for even a couple of hours. I like playing barbarians, so obviously I'd be up for it.
  • Maybe I should try running Monster of the Week for the group. Most of them are fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Savage Worlds: The Power of Superstition




Wait, is Velma the pop cultural descendant of Emily St. Aubert? 



Whether it’s an unscrupulous real estate developer using it to scare the masses or a cloaked vigilante using it to frighten criminals, fear of the supernatural – superstition – plays an important role in many settings where – just like in the real world – the supernatural does not exist. A disguised swamp buggy equipped with a flamethrower convinces the inhabitants of Jamaica that Dr. No’s Crab Key is home to a dragon. Sherlock Holmes quickly deduces that a rash of bloodsucking is merely a distraction from a mundane murder attempt in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” Zorro scares the pants off some lancers by painting a glowing skull on the wall in phosphorous in “Zorro Hunts a Jackal.” Indeed, the “female Gothic” tradition of Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Brontë, and others usually hinges on the supernatural elements having scientific explanations, the better to show that the true terror is the selfish, morally bankrupt desires of the male antagonists.

While the existence of the false supernatural – of reason-shattering superstition – could easily be made the stuff of setting fluff, what’s out of sight is often out of mind. The following three options can aid Game Masters and players in keeping superstition forefront in a campaign; note, however, that the setting rule is somewhat redundant with the Edge.

New Setting Rule – Cowardly Superstitious Lot
Despite the evidence of science and reason, the majority of characters in this setting believe in supernatural beings and powers. This means they can easily be duped by heroes and villains using “special effects” appropriate to that era: for example, a Roman senator might be convinced that a man powdered with chalk is a ghost, a Victorian matron might be taken in by table-rapping spiritualists, and the modern day owner of some valuable, underdeveloped property might be scared off by a man with a fog machine and a rubber mask. Characters preying on the superstitious by using such disguises and effects can force their victims to make a Fear check after a successful use of Intimidation.

New Hindrance – Superstitious [Minor]
Mere mortal dangers bother your hero not at all, but the thought of peril to his soul fills him with dread. He subtracts 2 from all of his fear-based Spirit checks against manifestations (or supposed manifestations) of the supernatural.

New Edge – I Am the Night
Requirements: Wild Card, Intimidation d8+
Through a clever disguise or the careful cultivation of a spooky reputation, this character has convinced others that he is a supernatural or uncanny being. The character can leverage this misapprehension to force his victims to make a Fear test if he gets a raise on an Intimidation check.

I Want Edopunk

I didn’t back 7 th Sea: Khitai for three reasons: 1) I honestly haven’t gotten much use out of my 7 th Sea 2 nd Edition books so far...