Professions in Medieval and Early-Modern RPGs

As I continue to work on rules for the Fate RPG (continuing my Pirates/Age of Sail setting rules and the Fate Control Panel and Fate rules for Avar Narn), I find myself more and more drawn to the design idea of using “professions” over “skills” in late-medieval and early-modern roleplaying games (the most common historical analogues of fantasy settings).

I’m not the first to think of this concept. While not actually used in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, by using “Professions” instead of “Classes” to group skills and abilities, that system made initial steps in this direction. More recent games–13th Age, Barbarians of Lemuria and Shadow of the Demon Lord, for example–have wholeheartedly adopted such an approach. Even the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has nodded in that direction with its “Backgrounds,” though it still retains discrete skills.

I’m going to make a few arguments as to why I think this approach is better than using more discrete and granular “skills”:

(1) Flexibility and Creativity
One of the things I don’t like about a discrete skill list is the way it causes players to think. Skills cause players to think that their characters can only act in ways specifically described by the skills on their list. In my mind, this is a microcosm of the idea of language shaping cognition–players tend to assume that the skill list represents something about how the game is “supposed” to be played and–especially for less-experienced players–tend to think that they’re “breaking the rules” or somehow trying to pull something if they can’t directly articulate the skill they’re using for their action.

This is counter to the “fiction-first” approach to gaming. I want my players to put themselves in the character’s shoes in the circumstances at hand and, without reference to their character sheet (except as a reminder of the sorts of things the character is good at, I suppose) tell me what they’re trying to do. Then, we can go to the rules and figure out some mechanics. In other words, skills push players toward “mechanics-first” thinking.

To be fair, this complaint goes beyond “narrative” or “fiction-first” gamers. I’m not a member of the OSR community by any means, but I am given to understand that one of the factors driving the OSR is the feeling that early editions of D&D, with their attribute bonuses without skills, allowed for more creative action by players. But that only further makes the point.

A list of professions gives players the information they need (“what are my character’s experiences and strengths?”) without pushing to very granular modes of action (“I can Deceive my way out of this, or I can Jump over the rooftop to get away, or I try to Hide, but I don’t have any other applicable skills”). A player who says, “Okay, my character has been a Courtier and a Soldier, how might he try to get out of this situation?” puts the fiction first and removes barriers to the player’s creativity in selections of actions.

I personally think that this really opens up in Fate if you use the combination of Approaches with Professions (in place of Skills) as laid out in the Fate Codex, Volume 3, Issue 2 (Merging FAE and Fate Core). What’s the difference between a Flashy Courtier and a Sneaky Courtier? Drama, that’s what!

(2) Professions Build Character History
Saying that a character has the “Stealth” skill doesn’t say nearly as much about the character as the character having the “Thief” or “Scoundrel” profession. The skill does beg many of the same questions, but the profession evokes them much more fully and makes us think about a phase or era in the character’s life rather than a simple explanation for how the character acquired a specific skill.

Further, overlap between professions actually allows for character diversity. A character with the Scout profession and a character with the Scoundrel profession probably both know how to be stealthy, but they learned to do so under different circumstances and for different purposes.

If we take the ideas in the two proceeding paragraphs and apply them to character creation, we should quickly see that this pushes us into asking questions about the character and not the skills during character generation. The player isn’t choosing whether the character has the “stealth” skill so much as thinking about how the character acquired it and the other circumstances of the character’s life around that acquisition. In other words, the player is making decisions about the character to get the skills, rather than selecting the skills and then retroactively justifying them.

I think that professions support taking this even farther with character creation systems that offer greater narrative potential than simply point-buy or array-assignment systems.  Simple systems certainly have their place–character creation in Barbarians of Lemuria is exceptionally friendly and simple.

In my opinion, a profession system begs for a “lifepath” system in character creation, allowing us to build the character by moving through his or her personal history. I’ll probably talk more about lifepaths in another post later on.

(3) Professions Are Reflective of Early-Modern Cultural Rigidity
Historically speaking, even as the changes that would lead to more social mobility were taking place, Western Europeans thought of their societies as easily compartmentalized under the “Great Chain of Being”: by the circumstances of their birth, a person was positioned by God where he or she was supposed to be. A peasant seeking to become a lord rebelled not only against society but against God.

A character’s choice of profession implies something about her social status–even in the modified (and often whitewashed) settings our fantasy games often take place in. I wrote in a previous post about leaning into the medieval mindset for fantasy writing and gaming; this is a design mechanism for doing so, I think. A character who has the Courtier, Soldier and Scoundrel professions occupies a different social status than one who has the Tradesman, Scout and Farmer professions, or even one who has the Soldier, Scoundrel and Traveler professions.

One of the areas where this makes the biggest difference, I think, is in social skills. A player who has the Persuade skill (perhaps rightfully) assumes that his character is persuasive to all people at all times. That’s rarely the case in real-world experience. If that character has a high rating in the Courtier profession but no skill in the Farmer or Merchant professions, the character is likely persuasive in the rhetorical speech and etiquette of the nobility, but might well be laughed at when trying to apply Cicero to an earthier and more practical sort of folk. That difference creates verisimilitude and depth to the setting (and probably helps remind players that, no, their character cannot just persuade the guard to give him his armor and weapons simply because he has a certain number of points in Persuade).

If you don’t want to add on additional systems to your game to accentuate the importance of (and difference between) levels of social status, the use of professions by itself will go a long way.

(4) Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic
I’m thinking that I should write a separate post entirely about handling knowledge skills in roleplaying games, but for now, I want to point out another benefit of using professions over skills. In Tudor England, about 8% of women and 24% of men could read and write well enough to sign their own name unassisted–provided I’m remembering my statistics correctly. Regardless of the actual numbers, literacy was on the rise but far from universal.

Some roleplaying games seek to capture this, requiring character resources to be dedicated to the ability to read and write if the player wants her character to have that ability. That’s good for immersion in the setting, but it creates other design problems in balancing the cost of that ability versus others (and balancing against our modern prejudice against those who are unable to read and write). When using professions, you can kill two birds with one stone: characters who have put points into certain professions (or a certain number of points into certain professions) are assumed to be able to read and write; those who have not are assumed not to be able to.

This helps sidestep the need to justify the ability (though the GM should find ways to accommodate players with believable backgrounds that break our assumptions and stereotypes) by corresponding the ability with those we would (logically and historically) expect to have it (say those with the Scholar or Priest professions).

The same goes for scientific and mathematics skills. Greek, Roman and Islamic scholars (and other ancient peoples in cultures from around the world) had advanced understandings of geometry, astronomy and other mathematics even before the late-medieval or early-modern periods in Europe. Under the Tudors, “tally sticks” allowed some record-keeping even for those with a relatively basic ability to conduct mathematic operations and perhaps no ability to read and write. Differentiating the likely arithmetical abilities of different characters becomes much easier when we have some idea of their background, experience and training rather than a list of skills on a page.

(5) Professions Evoke Setting
Your list of available professions tells players about the world they’ll be playing in. A world with Duelist(s) and Pirate(s) is very different from one with Knight(s) and Monk(s) (or Pirate(s) and Ninja(s?)).

(6) Built-in Contacts
If using a system like Fate, with its “Contacts” skill, then the use of Professions gives you both specificity and breadth that (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, n’est pas?) increases immersion, because the professions can be used to generate contacts of the type of people someone with experience in the given field is likely to know.

In Fate, this can be supplemented by allowing the invocation of Aspects to allow the introduction of contacts a character may know aside from the channels of his place in the world at large.

As usual, I’ve rambled on a bit more than I originally intended to do. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to think about converting skills into professions in the next campaign you run, regardless of system.

Further Thoughts on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

My first post about the Protocol seems to have quickly become the most-read post on my blog. It received some “likes” (though they remain ambiguous to me as what they’re supposed to mean) and some clear disdain or passionate argument, both of which I elected (after an ill-advised first decision to engage) to ignore. As such, I think it’s worthwhile to more fully expand on my thoughts on the subject and to take care of a few ancillary issues that have arisen.

First, some may have some questions about who I am. I am an attorney by profession but an aspiring lay theologian and writer of speculative fiction (hence the blog). I am also a foster father with a hope to eventually adopt, which constitutes the “Fatherhood” section of the blog, of course.

It will not take much work to find my name, but I do not overtly advertise it because my wife is a clergyperson in the UMC (in which we were both raised) and my thoughts and opinions are not hers and I prefer that they not be associated with her by default for fairness’ sake.

Like my wife, I was raised in the UMC. Like many young people (but not my wife), I left the Christian church in my late teenage years because I was given an impression by conservative elements in the Church that Christianity was something that it is not: something oppressive, judgmental and that makes the world a darker place, not a better one. I remained personally and professionally (as a scholar of the medieval and Renaissance periods for a time) deeply interested in philosophy and theology.

Thankfully, that interest eventually taught me better than what I’d earlier been led to believe about Christianity. I came to realize that Christianity, as is best known through the living God expressed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ is in fact the best sort of revelation I could ever hope for, a revelation of a God who deeply loves us despite our flaws and who offers abundant and meaningful living now and forever. An example of what I mean by that might be found here. I even found that Wesleyan theology actually matched up with what I had come to believe through my own reading and reflection and that it was hearing theologies that were expressed as Methodist but which were not that had driven me from the Church. Even so, I (re-)became a Christian intellectually before I had an inexplicable and direct encounter with Jesus Christ while participating in a “Bible in 90 Days” program.

To be clear, while that encounter convinced me personally of the truth of Christianity, it gave me no ability to prove that truth to others, nor any special interpretive theological insight. I have no prophetic gift. I consider my spiritual gift to be teaching but believe that that is a matter of the entirely-natural strengths with which God has endowed me combined with my personality and personal inclinations. I think it’s important that I am clear in stating that, as passionately as I argue for my theological assertions, as convicted of them as I am, I make no claim to special priority or authority in making those assertions and arguments. If they don’t stand on the basis of the arguments made, they certainly don’t stand because I’m the person making them. Also, while I’m making disclaimers, if there’s any uncertainty, I do not speak with any position of authority within or on behalf of the United Methodist Church. I am a lay person within the church who has held some minor leadership roles but the thoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

As an aside, part of the reason I feel that I am called to lay theology is so that my thoughts and arguments can avoid the entanglements of being within the UMC establishment (especially as clergy) where I would have to worry about my career, my next appointment, etc.

Part of the call that I feel as theologian is my belief (from experience) that the misinterpretation and misuse of Christianity has done the most harm to the Gospel–we are, in our words, our thoughts and our actions, often our worst enemies. My passions, preferences and convictions sometimes get in the way of my compassion as well; I am not above human nature.

A summary of my theological approach can be found here. A rough chapter from a theology book that I am working on (off and on again between my other projects) may be found here. My goal is to use all of the logical tools God has given us in our effort to understand Scripture and the divine while arguing that logic and science have their (logical) limits and that the irrational (I’d prefer the term “superrational”) and mystical must necessarily have a place in faith.

I’d also like to make my biases clear to you for your review as you evaluate my thoughts. I am unabashedly progressive in my theological leanings. I reject categorically any argument that the Bible should be read literally in all circumstances. Others have more fully set out the arguments for that position than I (I particularly prefer Karl Barth’s analysis of the difference between Scripture as the word of God and Jesus as the Word of God, which I address somewhat here, here, here and here.) I believe in full inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community within the Christian faith in general and the UMC in particular; I have laid out some arguments for this in the series here. I believe that those same persons should be allowed to be clergy if they have been called to be so. I vehemently disagree with the invocation of Christianity as an excuse for very un-Christian actions by our hardline conservative politicians (see here, here and here).

I have been a lay delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC for several years now and have reported my thoughts on several annual conferences on the blog. Here are some of my previous thoughts on the current human sexuality issue facing the Church (given mostly to be honest in my biases for all readers):

(1) A split of the UMC by any means other than by detailed agreement between all parties will be devastating to our witness and our missions. See here.
(2) I believe that the Church’s continued mission and relevance is best expressed in progressive theology, but that conservative theology (willing to engage honestly and in good faith with progressive theology) will always be important for accentuating certain aspects of our walk and faith, and that there should be a place for both in the UMC. See here.
(3) I believe that the One Church Plan provided the best avenue for various theologies to remain in productive fellowship with one another. See here.
(4) I believe that the Traditional Plan is, practically speaking, unenforceable and that the insistence upon it represents an unwillingness to compromise by some (not all) traditionalists within the UMC. See here.
(5) I found the actions of the hardline traditionalists at the Called General Conference in 2019 to be devastating, obstinate and infuriating. See here.
(6) I do not think it is right or proper to expel anyone from any Christian church, but especially from the UMC. See here (my first post to the blog, actually).

Okay, that’s a lot of introduction, but I feel that its necessary for me to be open and honest about my positions and thoughts, to hide nothing from readers (whether they agree with or like what I have to say or not) and to allow anyone who spends time reading my thoughts to evaluate them with their own discernment and standing in proper context. In other words, I believe that this information must be provided if I am to comply with the “Catholic Spirit” and the idea of “Holy Conferencing” as described by John Wesley. If you’re still reading, thank you. If you’ve spent time investigating the links I’ve provided throughout, I am touched and honored. If you’ve already left, I won’t know the difference.

Now, a continuation of my thoughts on the Protocol as promised. I’ll try not to repeat myself overmuch from my first post. Prepare for some stream of consciousness, people.

I still wish that the UMC would not split. I think that we are honestly better together and that a diversity of theologies and interpretative positions help us come closer and closer to a true understanding of God’s will for us.

I believe, and have said repeatedly, that the human sexuality issue before the UMC is only a proxy war for a much larger conflict between conservative and progressive approaches to Biblical interpretation. That has at once made the issue much more difficult (and is the explanation I give to those who ask why we’re still fighting about human sexuality) and, simultaneously, using this issue to fight about something else is unfair in the extreme to those affected: the LGBTQ+ community.

I think that it is hypocritical of those traditionalists who have taken the stance that their position is a “matter of conscience” for which there may be no compromise or compassion for disagreement while seeking to punish clergy who have violated the UMC’s Book of Discipline (by performing same-sex weddings or being a “practicing homosexual,” for instance) as a matter of their own conscience and theological convictions.

I acknowledge and respect that there are compatibilist (meaning, willing to continue to live in fellowship with progressives and others who disagree with their own theology) traditionalists. I wish that they were louder so that they might be better heard over the hardliners.

I acknowledge that there are hardline progressives who want to push any traditionalist element out of the UMC. I find it easier to sympathize with them than with hardline traditionalists given the injustices suffered by the LGBTQ+ community, but I still heartily disagree with their position and retain my preference for inclusion–including those of conservative/traditionalist theology willing to live compatibly with those who disagree.

Nevertheless, I believe that the hardline traditionalists have left no option but for a split in the UMC–my impression of the GC 2019 was that the progressives and centrists mostly (not entirely, but mostly) plead for a way to live together and the traditionalists stated that anyone who didn’t agree with their narrow hermeneutic had no place in the Church.

I argue that the acceptance of people who are not cisgendered, who are not gender-binary, whose gender is not the same as their biological sex, who have transitioned from one biological sex to another or who love someone who is the same gender or sex as them is not a matter of “rewriting Scripture” or of “culture corrupting Christianity.” I would liken it to C.S. Lewis’ “natural law.” Lewis argued that our conscience trying to guide us one way or another is the action of the Holy Spirit within us, that some aspects of wrong and right are known through the direct and personal revelation of God without a need to reference Mosaic or Levitical law. In that sense, I think societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is the Holy Spirit telling us what is right.

Before the arguments on that front begin, I would also argue that a good interpretation of Scripture supports what society is saying about LGBTQ+ acceptance, not vice versa. I’m not going to lay out those arguments here, there are plenty of excellent places to find them (just Google or search Amazon).

If you aren’t aware, an earlier commission of the General Conference (not the Commission on the Way Forward; this was the Committee to Study Homosexuality) gave its report to the 1992 UMC General Conference and made a similar statement (admittedly expressed in the negative form against condemnation rather than a positive assertion for acceptance). The majority report stated:  “The present state of knowledge and insight in the biblical, theological, ethical, biological, psychological and sociological fields does not provide a satisfactory basis upon which the church can responsibly maintain the condemnation of all homosexual practice.” Dorothy Lowe Williams and the United Methodist Church (U.S.) Committee to Study Homosexuality, The Church Studies Homosexuality: A Study for United Methodist Groups Using the Report of the Committee to Study Homosexuality (Nashville: Cokesbury, 1994), 36.

So what do all of these statements and assertions mean with regard to the Protocol?

First, I applaud the ability of some within each of the “factions” within the argument to come together to attempt a compromise. This is an example to us all.

Simultaneously, I think that, as honest Christians, we should lament and own that the best our human nature seems to allow us to do in this situation is to split as amicably as possible. This is choosing the best among terrible scenarios. I think that we can rightly compare this to the standard Methodist outlook on divorce: Divorce is not something that God wants, but our reality in this fallen world is that sometimes divorce is preferable under the circumstances to remaining in a broken and damaging relationship. God will not condemn one who leaves an untenable marriage; neither should we.

At the same time, we need to make clear, as Christians, to the unchurched that this is a result of our inability to fully live into Christ’s example for us, a further reminder that we, too, are in need of God’s grace. That in fact, is why we are Christians, not because of some hubris that allows us to look down our nose at those who are not Christians. I think most Christians agree with that premise but we do a terrible job of owning it and communicating it to others; our perceived arrogance and judgment is a primary source of ridicule and rejection of the Christian faith. That’s not a logical argument, but if we take evangelism seriously, we must admit that sometimes perceptions of us are more important than realities.

To that end, I find myself reluctantly supporting the Protocol. To be honest, I’m growing tired of fighting. I’m seeing less and less value arguing with those who disagree with me, no matter how respectful and genial I can keep myself (which isn’t always very, I admit) and I’m beginning to think that my own efforts are better spent where they will have greater effect, cutting my losses with traditionalists who will never listen to anything that possibly diverges from their established beliefs. Part of me wants to say, “I’ll leave that to God, that’s God’s job, not mine.” But I don’t like quitting, and a church split feels like quitting, even if it is necessary.

I want to point out a few things that I very much appreciate in the Protocol, though. First and foremost, the Protocol seeks to protect the material assets (namely retirement and benefits) of all UMC clergy, regardless of whether they stay or go. I don’t think that it is grace for anyone to test the willingness and ability of another person to follow his or her conscience by increasing the cost of doing so. Removing a choice about whether to keep the benefits one has worked so hard for for so long or to sacrifice all of it for conscience’s sake represents the moral obligations to one another our faith instills within us (or should at least), no matter which “side” you’re on. I sometimes feel drawn to aggressively argue my position against traditionalists, and not always in the kindest of ways, I admit. But I can honestly say that I wish no harm upon those who disagree with me, and the Protocol represents a communal agreement to the same.

Likewise, provisions for allowing local churches to keep their possessions and property will be essential and I very much appreciate the efforts of all parties on that front. If you’ve followed the links above (or the history of the split of any other Christian denomination in the U.S.), you know well how much money and acrimony gets devoted to sorting out property rights, taking resources from the Church’s mission. As an attorney (and a real estate attorney at that), I’m fairly comfortable saying that in much property litigation it’s the attorneys who come out best. This should be avoided at (almost) all costs.

As I mentioned in my first post on the Protocol, I do feel some vindication at the Protocol’s provisions that it is an alternative traditionalist denomination that will be formed. Much of this, I admit, is an emotional (and neither rational nor beneficial) reaction to those at the 2019 GC who seemed to say that the UMC is not my church. It is, and as so many progressives have made clear after the 2019 GC, I will fight for it if forced. But it’s better for everyone if we don’t and I’d much prefer not to be driven to say or do things I might later regret.

Still, I think that the circumstances as a whole make the departure of the traditionalists the more reasonable choice. I understand that neither side wants to leave the UMC; both sides want to claim it for their own. I have some empathy for that; it’s a very human inclination. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there is a right answer about who should leave. But my own (again biased) opinion is that, if it is the hardline traditionalists who refuse any compromise that allows us to live together, it seems fair that they be the ones to leave.

As I also mentioned in my first post, the Protocol is not a done deal. I imagine that it, too, like the Traditional and One Church Plans, will come to be hotly contested at the 2020 GC, that some will use Machiavellian maneuvering to attempt to stack the deck in their favor, that hopes will be dashed, that relationships will be broken and that spirits will be disheartened in what is to come. I hope that we can be better than that, we’re called to be as Christians, but experience doesn’t make me want to hold my breath.

Part of me thinks that the hardline traditionalists will never accept the Protocol and that they will attempt instead to do what they did in GC 2019–anything they can to get their way to the exclusion of all else. My greatest fear, if we’re being honest, is that they might succeed.

This fear is born out of my analysis of the flow and procedure of UMC conferences. Having gone through the transcript of the 1972 proceedings that led to the “incompatibility” language in the first place, I think that the condensed time frame and procedural confusion in the body (and leadership) of the Conference had as much to do with the change being passed as anything else. Likewise, I’ve seen plenty of circumstances in the Texas Annual Conference where scheduling and procedure seem to take on a life of their own in determining the course of decisions. Some of that may, of course, be tactical manipulation on the part of very savvy actors. More, though, is simply the difficulty of managing a large group of people, most of whom have no idea how things are supposed to proceed and little understanding of how they’re actually proceeding.

Personally, I think that we should, with great regret and reflection on our corporate failings, push for the approval of the Protocol. If this is a great divorce, then the time has come for us to stop talking about the substance of our disagreements and to start trying to be genial as we handle the administrative tasks necessary to end the relationship. I hate that that’s where I end up, but from my very mortal perception I do not see an alternative. The Spirit could always do something unexpected (though I think that perhaps the Protocol may well be that thing).

Things Unseen (Working Title) Excerpt, Chapter 18

Friday, I posted some of my thoughts on the UMC “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” My position has apparently ruffled some feathers, called some trolls out of the woodwork and brought a number of unexpected readers to my little blog. None of that is unexpected nor terribly troubling–although I find little value in spending time debating those who feel a need to start (and then try to “win”) an argument with me. More important, I very much appreciate the thoughts of anyone who’s taken the time to read my take on the subject, whether or not they agree with it (given the situation that has given rise to the Protocol in the first place, it would be foolish indeed for me to expect everyone to share my point of view, nor do I expect to convince everyone of it). I have more to share on the subject, particularly as events continue to unfold in the march toward the UMC 2020 General Conference, but there will be time enough for that and I feel that something altogether different is in order in the meantime.

So, I’m posting an excerpt of a (long) chapter from my novel-in-progress (tentatively called Things Unseen) for your enjoyment (I hope). As I’m continuing to push forward on the novel to complete a first draft before beginning the long process of revision, this excerpt is almost entirely unedited, so pardon my typos and infelicities of language in advance. Without further ado:

Things Unseen, First Draft, Chapter 18

I startled awake as the door to my room swung open, rebounding from the stone wall of my chamber it had been pushed so hard. Aryden, fully dressed and armed, flanked by Savlo and Gamven, entered imperiously.
“Get dressed,” the lord said.
I looked to the window. Dark. The faintest tinge of light peeking around the far edge of the Avar with the promise of a morning still distant in the coming. “Huh?” I managed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
“We’re going hunting.” For his sudden energy, the lord looked like he hadn’t slept during the night, his hair wild and only cursorily brushed into something approximating a tuft of wild weed, wet with dew. He wore a breastplate and tassets, just as Gamven did.  Savlo, though, wore only a simple hunting jerkin, long knife in his belt and a linpiped hood pulled over his head and shoulders.
“Hunting?” I repeated slowly, still in the daze of dreams not yet forgotten.
“Disposing of the people in the Close didn’t work, lord thaumaturge,” Aryden said,the dubiousness of my title fully evident, “so we go to the next possibility, yes?”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Good. Get ready and meet us in the stables.”
As suddenly as they’d entered, the three departed, the door rattling as it slammed home in its frame. Only then did I remember the missing woodsman and the reason for the extemporaneous hunt.
I took little time to ready myself, splashing enough water over my face to gain some modicum of wakefulness, arming myself much as I had for the Close the day previous, but leaving my pistols empty of charge and shot. Before I left, I pulled the drawstring bag of runeshot from my backpack and secured it on my belt. The other foresters had claimed to have seen some unnatural beast, and I thought the shot might prove useful.          The light at the horizon seemed to have moved only imperceptibly as I left the keep for the stables. Outside the building, Aryden and his two trusted retainers sat astride their horses already, not proud and haughty warhorses, but lean and nimble palfreys, suited to the hunt. A recurve bow occupied a wide sheath set against Savlo’s horse’s flank, forward of the saddle. Aryden leaned a wheelock musket over his right shoulder, reins held loosely in the left. Gamven held a light lance aloft, a banner with Aryden’s crest on it flapping in an early breeze. Varro, astride his own mount, waited patiently at the edge of our group, looking the mounts up and down to ensure his satisfaction with them.
Vitella amn Esto stood nearby, back turned to me and dressed in a tight-fitting riding jacket with impressive decolletage and flared at the waist, the tails drawing attention to her hips. A cigarello hung from her lips, the end of it blooming into reddish-orange life whenever she drew upon it, which was frequently as she checked that her horse’s girth and stirrups had been properly configured and tightened. No servant assisted her, which might have been a point of pride or a matter of her family’s diminished wealth—an issue soon to be rectified if the amn Vaini and Valladyni had their way. Like Aryden, she had brought both a single-edged, curved hunting sword and a wheelock musket, the sword hanging from her side and the musket in a sheath near the saddle.
Behind her, Edanu mounted his horse, a jet black destrier he must have brought with him from elsewhere—the kind one might find in the Ealthen Empire or the Tatters but only rarely in Altaena. He had traded his Artificial crossbow for a matchlock musket, perhaps Medryn’s—we’d decided as a group that he ought not recover those bolts expended in the Close, just for good measure. He sat a good deal higher than the others on his beast of a mount, the thing stamping the avar impatiently and snorting derisively at its company.
Part of me had feared that I’d be riding behind on Windborne, chagrined at the poor choice of name and eating dust all day. Fortunately, one of the grooms led another palfrey to me, a brown beauty of Altaenin stock, perhaps not powerful but with a comfortable gait that made long riding tolerable to the ass.
“Iphadrex,” the young man told me, handing me the reins.
A name from a forgotten kingdom, dead and gone long before the rise and fall of Ealthen imperialism. And I thought I could be pretentious.
I mounted the horse, who shifted easily under me, ready but not impetuous, and neither so sluggish as the horse I’d rode in on. With a click of his tongue, Aryden started his mount moving. The rest of us exchanged looks with one another, trying to calculate who had rights to follow closest to our host lord. I motioned for Vitella to pass before me once she’d mounted; she directed her palfrey to a position behind amn Vaina and angled his right, waiving for me to come alongside her on the left. The others formed up behind us so that we made a wedge, like some gallant charge in ages past. Gallant and foolhardy, no doubt. And much slower.
We processed thus through the courtyard, those servants already set to work in the wee hours abandoning their tasks momentarily to watch us pass by with a mix of awe and fear. They’d already heard tales of our misadventures in the Close and certainly some of them would be mourning the absence of Errys and Medryn. Myself, I tried to push them out of my mind for the present, lest distractedness send some of my present company to join them.
Our handsome wedge condensed into a small clot of horses and riders as we passed under the gateway from the inner courtyard to Old Vaina, Edanu falling behind to avoid his horse biting one of the others. Warhorses and their knights have far too much in common—both full of violence and without sense enough to know when it isn’t warranted. That Edanu pretended to such a status surprised me, given his preference for foppish dress and feigned nonchalance—and yet didn’t. There’s not a member of an Artificer House I’ve ever met who wasn’t cold, calculating and ruthless, ambitious at any cost. Subtler on the whole than men-at-arms, but equally deadly and uncaring.
Although the craftsmen bustled about, already setting to their daily tasks, and the merchants had already begun to open the windows to their storefronts and set out their prized wares, the townsfolk of Old Vaina paid little attention to our hunting party, and I enjoyed the lack of wary looks cast in my direction followed by the sign of the Tree or apotropaic spitting—not that either had any effect.
The gates to New Vaina had not yet been opened, and the night watch, perhaps only moments from a changing of the guard, scrambled to pull the winches to raise the portcullis and open the doors before they forced us to stop and wait. The constable Daedys waited for us on the other side, atop a working horse arrayed in simple but well-made tack. A matchlock musket occupied a sheath next to the saddle in the same fashion as Vitella’s and he carried a boar spear in his hand, a heftier companion to Gamven’s light lance.
“My lords,” the constable nodded, letting go the reins for a moment to remove his flat cap in deference.
Amn Vaina nodded back, barely, without breaking stride, leaving Daedys to fall into the last row and sort out a position for himself.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your men,” I could hear Daedys tell Gamven behind me.
“It was a close thing.” the master-of-arms returned. I fought a smile as cold and bitter as a new tomb.
“Anything you can tell us about the creature the woodsmen claim to have seen?” I asked, turning in my saddle to look at the constable and straining in the effort.
“Only that they agree that it’s an unnatural thing. Everyone’s story is different, and I’m inclined to believe that they are just that—stories.”
“Then what of the missing man?”
“Kalvor, his name. As I said before, most likely wolves or some other natural predator. It’s not unknown for them to take a stray woodsman who’s wandered too far from his fellows. Hasn’t happened in several years—until now, I suppose—but it happens ever so often. If he’s dead at all. Timbering is hard work, and there’s always some who find they haven’t the mettle for an honest living.”
“And you think Kalvor was such a one?”
“Perhaps. He was young, hadn’t been at the work for too long, no wife, no children. Nothing to hold him down if he decided to leave.”
“That’s the same story I’ve heard of your nephew Orren, Master Daedys.”
He harrumphed.
Savlo joined in. “I spent the day yesterday looking for tracks in the area Kalvor supposedly went missing in. No wolves.”
“What did you find?” I asked.
“Nothing unusual.”
“So what are we fucking looking for?” Gamven growled.
“Whatever there is,” Aryden spat without turning, an equal amount of gravel in his voice.
“Of course, my lord,” Gamven corrected.
We took a side path through New Vaina that led along the hillside to the stream running parallel to the town, providing running water to the larger homes in Old Vaina and supplying the New Vaina wells at the base of the hill. But before they did either of those things, the flowing water supplied a trio of mills, the fast flow steadily turning wooden wheels and the gears connected to them. This flow had evidently been diverted after a stone channel,complete with sluice gates to control the water had been built into the hillside with a drop above each waterwheel, making them more powerful pitchback mills. The lowest of the three, most accessible to the townsfolk, was a gristmill for the products of the many surrounding farms. The second mill emitted the steady rhythm of blade against wood while the highest sang with the bass thump thump of pounding. Industrial music, of a sort.
We made for the timber mill in the middle of the trio, where men already stripped to bare chests in the heat of the summer morning and of exertion worked in teams to remove branches and bark from felled trees before carrying them to the mill’s hungry mouth. A foreman, less sweaty than his fellows, bowed to his knee upon seeing our approach. The gesture, somehow both overwrought and embarrassingly amateur, made me uneasy, though Aryden and Vitella both nodded with satisfaction.
“My lord,” the foreman began, “I had not expected you to come personally to see to the loss of our man. We were thankful that you sent your master of hunt to search yesterday, especially since Master Daedys’…inquiry…turned up nothing but tales from the men and, I presume, no indication of where to search for Kalvor, since he made no effort to do so.”
Daedys shifted uncomfortably in his saddle while Vitella grinned at the man’s brazenness to speak so poorly of his landlord before their mutual liege lord. Aryden remained stonefaced.
“My brother had just been put in the Close, my lord, and I had to make sense of his papers to step into his place as the head of our family,” Daedys offered, driving his boar spear into the ground next to his horse so that he could push his hair back under his cap, looking away from amn Vaina as he did.
“We’re here now,” Aryden said simply, “and, as you see, with capable assistance.”
Turning to me, he continued, “Well, lord thaumaturge?”
I dismounted and handed the reigns to Savlo before approaching the foreman. “This man, Kalvor, do you have anything that belongs to him?”
“Hmm, let me see.” The man wondered off to talk to those in his charge.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Gamven asked. Behind him, Edanu smiled knowingly.
I ignored them both. “Savlo, how far did you range from here in search of the missing man?”
“A mile or two in every direction from the farthest reaches the woodsman work at.”
“And you found no sign of Kalvor?”
“No prints, no broken boughs, no blood?”
“It’s been too long since his disappearance to expect much of that, hasn’t it?”
“And animals?”
“Nothing unusual.”
“Has anyone seen a dragon or drake in these parts in recent memory?”
“Only closer to the mountains, days from here, and even then only rarely. Why?” Aryden interjected.
“No griffins, anything like that?”
“No. No signs of flying predators, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“It is,” I affirmed. “Doesn’t give us much to go on.”
At this point, the foreman returned, holding his closed fist out to drop something into my hand. I held it out for him and two knucklebones fell onto my palm, blackened pips delicately marked on each of the faces. “Kalvor’s lucky dice,” the foreman said.
“Not that lucky,” Vitella remarked, Edanu smiling along with her.
“Why didn’t he have them?” I asked.
“Lost them in game a few days before he went missing.”
“Perhaps lucky is too strong a word,” Vitella continued.
“How long had he owned them?” I pressed.
“Long time, I guess,” the foreman said. “Talked about ‘em a lot. Big on games that one. When he won a decent haul from the others, he’d not show up for days after, spending it all on drink and women in Vaina. He’d always come crawling back when the drink went dry and the whores turned him away.”
“How do we know that he’s not somewhere drinking and cavorting?” Daedys asked.
“Because he lost his dice,” I said flatly. “He hadn’t won anything before he disappeared. And I imagine that no one’s seen him in town for some time, or he wouldn’t be called ‘missing.’”
“Hmph,” the constable responded.
I continued my interrogation of the foreman. “You’re sure that he owned these for a long time?”
“Yes, what of it?”
Rather than respond, I took the bones, smooth on the edges from long use or from nervous rubbing, and moved away from the mill’s activity, my companions and the foreman all following behind. Where I found a flat- and large-enough stone in the ground, I placed the dice down upon it, procuring the chalk from my belt pouch and drawing a set of circles around the objects followed by glyphs at the edges. I heard the foreman spit behind me and turn away, but I continued unperturbed. Once I’d drawn the symbols for my working, a bastardized hybrid between a theurgy and a thaumaturgy, I returned the chalk to its pouch and pulled my wand from its small sheath. Touching the tip of the wand to the dice, I closed my eyes and focused, muttering soft words to guide my mind through the structure of the working.
I know not how my fellows reacted to this, my concentration drowning out all sense of the world around me. My use of the Art complete, I opened my eyes, swept up the dice into my left hand and clutched the want lightly in my right. I waited for a moment before feeling the first subtle twitch in the wood, its pull turning my hand, the wand now pointing as a compass arrow, straight into the woods to the east. To be sure, I deliberately turned the wand away from the direction it had indicated and felt it pull back to true.
I began to walk, not fast, but steadily, waiving with my free hand for the rest of the hunters to follow. We proceeded in this manner for at least an hour, passing near the old road I’d followed previously to Falla’s cottage, buried amidst the ruins of a that forgotten Aenyr outpost. No one spoke as they followed, or if they did I could not hear them, but as we neared that maligned practitioner’s abode I heard amn Vaina and amn Esto pull the hammers of their wheelocks to a ready position, the snick of the retaining pin snapping into place unmistakable. The sound of a friction striker followed as Edanu lit his matchcord.
Still convinced that Falla had nothing to do with the Vaina castle haunting, or the disappearance of Kalvor for that matter, I cringed at those sounds. The wand tugged us along a path that soon diverged from the Aenyr road and Falla’s cottage, and I breathed a little easier at that. For several more miles I walked, my mounted companions followed behind but leaving an increasing berth between me and them. The forest became thicker the farther we progressed, the hills leaving the ground broken and treacherous, forcing everyone to dismount.
“Iaren,” Aryden said softly, the hunter’s concern for noise having taken him at some point along our journey. I turned with my torso and head, leaving my feet still aligned with the wand and careful not to move it from the direction it currently pointed. “Should we leave the horses?” Lord amn Vaina asked.
“They’re not my horses,” I returned. “You do as you think best.”
“What are we going to find in these woods?” Savlo asked.
“Hell if I know,” I told him. “I’m just following the direction the wand points. It should lead us to Kalvor, but I have no idea what we’ll find along with him.”
“What if he’s gone a great distance away?” Vitella asked, not so amused now.
“Then it’s going to be a very long walk,” I smiled. The suns had by now risen in the sky, the morning growing warm with customary summer heat. But it was early in the day yet, and I was willing to walk a good distance more before calling my working a failed effort.
“Varro,” amn Vaina began. “Stay here with the horses. If we’re not back within a few hours, make a camp for us. If we don’t return by tomorrow, go home and seek for more soldiers to come after us.”
We paused for a moment as each member of the party transfered weapons and other useful belongings from saddlebags or sheaths to their persons. Those of us with arquebuses carried them at the ready now, silent smoke trailing from Edanu’s match, the chemical sent sure to give us away. Savlo must have had this thought, too, for he continually threw disapproving glances to the Meradhvor dignitary, but decided not to verbalize his complaint.
Once everyone had satisfied themselves with their gear, we set out again. We took heavy steps, the dry grasses crunching softly underneath our feet, that cloud of sulfurous miasma preceding us. Our journey continued until the suns had reached the apex of their daily circuit, their rays piercing the canopy above us like spearpoints that illumined small pockets of the forest with the full light of day, leaving the rest in a twilight liminality.
Suddenly, there came a tap on my shoulder, and I turned to find Savlo motioning for the entire band to freeze in place. We did so, leaving only the tension (and that damnable sulfur stench) hanging in the air. For a moment, I stared blankly at the hunter, waiting for some explanation of our brief respite. Seeing my lack of understanding, he silently tapped his ear and pointed upward. Then I realized his intent: only the tension and smell of burning matches lingered. The birdsong had gone silent, as had the incessant clicking of the cicadas, the occasional tumble and creak of branches from fleeing or pursuing fauna, any of the customary sounds of forest life.
“A predator is close,” Savlo whispered to me, his voice barely the suggestion of speech.
“They’re not reacting to us?” I asked quietly.
“No. This silence just started.”
I took a few steps back to the rest of the party, my feet harsh upon the forest floor, a reminder of my lack of serious experience in the wilds. Savlo followed behind, his presence felt more than heard, another stalking thing in the shadows under the canopy of the old trees.
We huddled together, faces shining now with summer sweat, the clanks and clicks of Gamven’s armor audaciously loud in the relative silence. “Savlo and I will move forward and scout ahead; there’s something up there. Something dangerous.”
“We can’t go around it?” Aryden asked.
“Kalvor is close. I’m guessing we’ve found the creature the woodsmen were complaining of,” I told him.
“When you say, ‘creature,’ what exactly do you mean?” Edanu followed.
“You can’t feel that?” I asked him. “That’s no child of Avarienne. It’s something from beyond the Avar, intruding here.”
“You mean the spawn of the forbidden ones?”
“The get of Sedhwe or Daea, most likely, yes.” Faces sank all around, and our day in the Crimson Close seemed a relaxing stroll through town in comparison.
“How?” Vitella asked.
“Like other spirits, they can sometimes cross the Verge and pierce the Veil,” I told her. “When they do, they tend to stay here. Whether by choice or by necessity is anyone’s guess. Some are left from dark times past, hidden and biding their time.”
“For what?”
I shrugged. “And, of course, sometimes they are brought to the Avar Narn purposefully.”
“Who would do such a thing?” Gamven asked.
“The power-hungry, the desperate, the mad, the curious, the arrogant. There is a reason the Vigil exists, after all, even if it is not recognized in the Sisters.”
“Is this the source of the haunting, then?” Aryden asked, hopeful.
“Doubtful. At least not directly. If it has killed Kalvor, then I suppose the likelihood that his spirit is haunting your home is increased, but these sorts of creatures are not typically known for subtle action.”
“But if we’re nearing its home—or lair—or whatever you want to call it,” Savlo said, “Then it ranged quite a ways to seize upon poor Kalvor.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Assuming it is such a creature, how do we defeat it?” Gamven asked.
“Such things are difficult to kill, it is true. But anything that has physically manifested in the Avar may be defeated through force of arms.”
“Good,” Gamven responded. “But how?”
“That depends on what it is, particularly. Until we know that, I cannot say. If things are as I suspect, though, you will find that your weapons are far less effective than against other foes. Still useful, but far less effective. The foe will be a truly dangerous one. We will need to be careful and cunning to defeat it.”
“Have you done this before?” Edanu asked.
“No. Of course not,” I told him. The group let out a collective sigh of trepidation.
“Must we do this?” the Meradhvor emissary challenged?
“We’ve come all this way. We know that the creature is a threat to Vaina and will continue to be so, and there is still the possibility that it is Kalvor’s spirit haunting Vaina castle and that we might put him—and this whole affair—to rest by recovering his body and properly honoring it.”
“Alright, then,” Savlo resolved. “Let’s get to it. I’d rather have this done by dark if we can.”
“Agreed,” Gamven said grimly.
Savlo and I moved forward cautiously in the direction the wand pulled; I tried to follow behind him precisely, stepping where he had stepped and matching his movements in avoidance of obstructing branches or brush. My lack of skill proved plain, and Savlo shot me constant looks of silent frustration combined with exasperated hand signals I did not understand. The undergrowth complained with nearly ever step I took, and the heavy feeling of being watched by an unseen predator fell upon me.
Even at the height of summer, the foliage over which we passed had become brown and dead despite the regular rains. The trees bore no leaves and showed signs of dry rot, bark cracked and peeling with decay. The very life of the woods had been sucked away here, a sure sign of some malevolent presence manifested across that dark divide of the Abyss. I noticed that my knuckles had become white over the grip of my wand, the fingers of my free hand nervously contorted, stretching in anticipation of urgent need of them. The pallor of corruption filled the air, and as we continued onward the trees became not only bare and lifeless, but twisted into unnatural forms, bulbous knots protruding from unexpected locations, the tips of dry branches sharply pointed.
Savlo noticed this, too, of course, and his hands quietly slid an arrow from his quiver and knocked it against the string of his bow. He never stopped or looked down as he did this, working by practiced instinct as he continued to sneak quietly forward, scanning the gaps between the now-sparse trees for threats.
We moved forward like this for several moments, the dead grasses and shrubs under our feet giving way to dry dirt. Only then did my feet agree to silence as we moved. Presently, we reached a rocky clearing at the base of a rising hill topped by a copse of thick trees. The wand trembled in my hand in indication of immediate proximity; Savlo pointed to a cave opening in the side of the hill’s ascent before returning the hand to its position just behind the arrow’s flights.
We stood at the edge of those final trees that had not yet been corrupted to oblivion by the monster’s presence, neither of us ready to move into the clearing itself, despite the fact that we had no concealment where we stood nor any to be found in the vicinity.
Only a short time passed before a shadow moved within the darkness of the cave’s mouth. For a moment I remembered the dream I’d had when I’d arrived in Vaina; the thought that such an unrequested divination seemed to have foreshadowed present circumstances steeled me somehwat—or at least kept my feet from turning and moving despite my will to stay.
A long, snakelike neck emerged from the obscured interior of the cavern, scaly and tipped by a sharp beak not unlike the kind you’d find on a falcon or some other bird of prey. Above that daunting protrusion sat two clusters of eyes, spider-like, their dark pupils searching independently of one another briefly. When the thing had spotted us, all of the interior eyes shot into formation, piercingly focused on we intruders. Those eyes on the outer edge of each cluster continued to sweep about, searching the thing’s peripheral vision for hidden dangers.
Satisfied that only the two of us had come, the monster emerged fully from its lair. Scales became dark feathers of a shadowbending sheen where the protruding neck met the corpulent and misshapen body, seven legs, some like those of a wolf and some like those of a chicken—each tipped in deadly claws—moved the thing along in a waddling gait of unnatural speed. A long, leathery tail, like a newly-shorn sheepskin, trailed from the darkness of the cave, ending in a set of bony, mace-like protuberances. A creature out of some fever-dream, sharply defiant of the natural order of Avarienne’s children, and one that I would not soon forget.
We thought that the thing’s size might allow us some protection amongst the more closely-spaced trees, though in retrospect their rotting and dying condition would have left them crumbling and broken with even the slightest force. But this mattered not, for the monster squeezed and contorted itself in its pursuit of us, body bulging at one end and then the other as it effortlessly moved between obstacles without disturbing them.
I dropped my wand and drew my sword; it had decided to kill me first. I waived to Savlo to make use of the distraction; he dodged back and withdrew, dropping his bow and arrow as he did. At first, I thought he’d lost his nerve and run, but I had no time to revel in anger or despair over that—the monster struck at me with withering fury, neck weaving between and around trees with unnatural celerity to strike first from my left and then my right, unrelenting in the assault. I warded with blade and dodged as best I could, the sword’s edge having little effect on the beast’s scales but at least knocking that striking neck enough to purchase a short space between that beak (which I now noticed was lined with a predator’s teeth within) and my flesh. My saving grace was that it was a duel of sorts, the kind of fight to which I was most accustomed, and my feet proved agile and steady enough to keep injury, if not the monster itself, at bay.
A horn sounded, loud and nearby; Savlo had chosen to sound the alarm and call our fellows to our aid rather than to take a shot of unknown efficacy with his weapon. A wise choice, though it called the attention of our otherworldy foe to him. As it turned its neck I struck a blow, one that left a shallow line across its scaly neck. It turned and snapped at me, with annoyance rather than fear or anger, and then turned to Savlo, strange form waddling and yet passing gracefully between the trees again.
Freed from immediate danger, I sheathed my sword and pulled free the pouch of runescribed shot from my belt, pouring the metal balls into an open palm. I searched for those with runes effective against either the spawn of Sedhwe or the get of Daea, dropping the rest onto the dusty ground, for there was no time to return them gently to the pouch nor were they of any use to me at present.
Which was it? A child of that demoness of deceit and damnation, or a corrupted creation of the archenemy? I struggled to remember my days of instruction at the hands of my first master, the piles of dusty tomes I’d read as a student at the university, separating the thoughts that arose into their proper categories—or so I hoped. They are so closely related, Daea being a creation of Sedhwe and his intended spouse, she the fallen spirit of the direst of fallen spirits. But Sedhwe learnt his craft from the One, or from watching the other Firstborn work; he wrought his spawn first from the darker side of imagination and later from the nightmares of the naming peoples. Daea had inherited some skill from her creator and would-be husband, but had stolen more from the secret arts of the other Firstborn, twisting them and grafting them together like some primordial fleshcrafter to create her progeny, for she could bear no child herself. This creature, then, an amalgam of parts taken from Avarienne’s children, must have belonged to that archdemoness. How it came to dwell here was anyone’s guess, but I had neither time nor care for the answer.
In his precarious flight from the snapping beak of the monster, Savlo had abandoned his bow, pulling his hunting sword from its sheath and hacking wildly to hold the beast at bay, much as I had done only a moment before. Daea’s child showed no sign of fatigue, no indication that it might offer any respite or quarter, while Savlo breathed heavily and took steps of failing soundness, rolling on his ankle painfully and hobbling thereafter, carried only by the adrenaline that no doubt crashed over him like an angry tide.
There came the crack of an arquebus, the thud of its projectile smashing into the feathery torso of the unnatural predator with little effect. “Fuck me!” I heard Edanu’s voice. “The thing shrugged it off like I’d spit at it!”
It had. The ball had rebounded from the leathery hide or bony plate or whatever foul armor lie beneath the coat of feathers, which now raised up somewhat, like the spines of a porcupine, their iridescence a visible sign of the thing’s rising ire. The beast turned to glare at our oncoming fellows, outer eyes still watching Savlo and I from the corners of their bulbous windows.
A deafening screech bellowed from the creature’s elongated throat, stopping all of us in our tracks as we vainly attempted to stop up our hearing. I let fall the runic shot from my hand as I covered my ears, the little balls rolling this way or that according to the whim of the dirt at my feet where they mingled anonymously with the ones I’d dropped before in hopes of efficiently sorting out what I needed. Now I’d have to search out each in turn and check its rune—if I could find the right ones at all. I dropped to my knees in the search.
Occupied as I was, I did not watch the battle unfold around me. I’ve pieced together what follows from the scraps of my recollection and the tales told by my companions after the fact.
Aryden, Gamven, Vitella and Daedys drove the assault, splitting apart from one another and each darting in and out of engagement from various angles to confuse and harry the beast. Their attacks did little more than distract the creature as it snapped back and forth between them, always just too late to catch one. They bought Savlo enough time to limp away from the fray; he circled back around at a safe distance to join me as I crawled along the ground searching for shiny objects.
“Shouldn’t I be the one crawling around?” He said flatly.
I smirked, though he couldn’t see it. Daedys flew past us suddenly, picked up and tossed through the air with a violent snap of the creature’s neck. He took a moment to recover the wind that’d been knocked out of him and then rejoined the fight.
Savlo must have picked up the arquebus his lord had dropped when charging in, for he held the ornate wheelock delicately. The dogleg rested tight against the flashpan; Savlo had no intention of firing the weapon at present.
Edanu joined the two of us, planting his feet and muttering to himself before he began the long course of actions to reload his own arquebus and being especially careful not to bring his powder horn close to the waiting match.
“Wait,” I whispered to him, more than a little nervous that the three of us standing together and moving but little might draw the attention of the creature to easy prey.               “You’re going to need something better than regular shot to stand a chance of seriously injuring that thing, and it looks that we’ll tire long before it does if we try to do things the hard way.”
I’d been grasping at the metal balls one by one during all of this, checking each rune and tossing hard and far those with markings unhelpful to the present struggle. So far, that had been all I’d inspected. Now, though, I chanced upon the first projectile bearing the proper marks. I held it up over my shoulder to Edanu and said, “load this one.” I could hear him pulling the ramrod free of his weapon to tamp down the powder and wadding before loading the ball I’d given him.
The grunts and shouts of our companions provided a constant harmony as I searched, Edanu loaded and Savlo waited.
“What the hell are you three doing over there?” came Aryden’s voice, thunderous and imperious.
“Looking for our balls!” Edanu shouted back with a smile.
“When you find them, we could use some help!” the lord returned. A grunt and a scraping sound followed his words as the creature’s beak slid across Aryden’s breastplate, a bite than might otherwise have proved fatal.
At that time, I’d found a second ball of the proper marking, which I handed to Savlo.
“I’m already loaded,” he objected.
I opened my mouth to answer the hunter, but Edanu had finished loading and brought the caliver to his shoulder.
“Wait!” I said, louder than I’d meant to. “Wait until we’re all loaded!”
“They’re running out of time,” Edanu replied, his voice firm but trembling with anxiety at its edges.
“A single shot won’t fix that. Savlo, you’re going to have to fire your piece and reload.”
The hunter grunted in response. We all knew that his doing so would bring us unwanted attention; I was thankful he held the ball tight in one hand and bided his time.
While I continued to search, our fighting companions were taking a beating. The monster had struck no life-threatening blow as of yet, but Gamven had been injured sorely enough to be forced to withdraw. Repeated bludgeoning with its strong neck and many close calls with its razor beak had taken a toll on both the vigor and morale of the others. Daedys’ thrusts with his boar spear became ever more cursory and obviously intended to gain the creature’s focus rather than to do real harm. As it realized this, it had begun to ignore him, turning its attention toward Aryden and Vitella.
Where they had begun by distracting the beast and forcing it to maneuver back and forth between them, now the creature had seized the initiative, forcing the pair to suddenly change direction to avoid snapping jaws and to step lively to avoid colliding with one another as they continuously repositioned, Daedys trailing behind in an effort to remain relevant to the fight at all.
Again the monster issued its bloodcurdling screech, driving the combatants back and almost to their knees as the sound pierced their ears and plunged cold and sharp into their very minds. Even somewhat removed from the monster’s presence the shriek filled the three of us with pain, our own cries drowned amidst the sea of sound the beast had created. It was as if the sound pushed my spirit from my body and I looked down momentarily on the scene, unable to act or to think with clarity while the echoes of the sonorous attack coursed through me.
I felt rather than heard the concussion of Savlo’s arquebus firing into the air, emptying itself of its contents to be filled afresh. When only the ringing in our ears remained of that scream, Savlo motioned to Edanu for his powder horn. The emissary passed the container to the hunter without words—or if there were any I could not hear them—and Savlo set to his task more assuredly than Edanu had done with his own piece.
For wadding, Savlo tore a piece from the end of his cloak, already worn and threadbare, stuffing some down the barrel to hold the tamped powder in place and wrapping the ball in a bit before ramming it home, too. As he recovered the ramrod from the barrel he glared at me, nudged me with his foot. I realized I’d been watching him work rather than continuing with my own task, which I returned to anon.
As hearing returned, the shouts of our companions grew louder, more desperate. I’m told that Vitella and Aryden saved each other’s lives more than once, that Daedys’ efforts in spite of exhaustion proved vital. All I heard, though, was the growing doom in their voices and the sighing sounds of the beast as it attacked without ceasing.
Finally, I found a third ball marked against Daea’s brood. I wiped the dirt from it by rubbing it against my vest before popping it into my mouth—the best place I could devise to safely hold it while I loaded one of my pistols. The monster passed close by and I froze, its tail mindlessly swinging near my face as the beast turned in pursuit of one of my companions. Fingers trembling, I fumbled for one of my chargers, pulling it from the string on which it hanged and turning it over the barrel of my piece, held upright in my left hand. Some of the powder spilt around the mouth of the barrel, landing softly on the webbing between thumb and forefinger at the pistol’s grip. Tossing the charger aside, I brushed the grains I could from hand to ignition pan, hoping it would be enough.
After tamping the powder with the ramrod, I pulled a thin patch of cloth from one of my belt pouches and spit the ball into it, pulling the cloth around the shot before pushing both into the waiting barrel and ramming these home, too. Forgetting my own advice and tossing the ramrod aside in my haste, I rose with the pistol to take aim at the beast.
I tracked it with my arm, waiting until I felt I had a proper lead on the moving target, willing a flame at the tip of my index finger, which lay in the pan. A flare burst from the ignition hole, but the pistol failed to recoil in my hand; it had not fired. An agonizing second passed, the pistol’s aim lagging behind the location of the beast, before the powder finally decided to ignite, the shot spinning wild in my unpreparedness and wasted.
Not entirely wasted-the blast had captured the beast’s attention. The monster turned abruptly and charged me. In an act of will not entirely born of conscious thought, I threw up a shield of arcane force, enough to keep me from significant injury but far too little to stop the charge. Without ever touching me directly, acting only through the invisible bindings between my outstretched hand, the shield and the creature’s downturned forehead, it flung me as easily as if I’d been picked up and tossed carelessly aside by the hand of the One.
I hit the ground sprawled on my back, the wind knocked from my lungs. The creature pursued after its charge and forced me to roll away from its lunging beak. The hilt of my sword pushed into my side as I spun, bruising my hip bone but reminding me of its existence.
With another roll augmented by a quick sorcery, I recovered my feet, sword in hand and already slashing at the beast’s face as it turned to strike again. My light blade recoiled from the thing’s scales, the hilt ringing painfully in my hand as if I’d struck a wall. I felt a warm damp on my upper lip and tasted copper, whether a side effect of my sorceries or an injury from being flung, I could not tell—not that it really mattered.
A second shot rang out—I would later learn that this was Savlo’s—connecting with the creature with a wet sound not unlike the sound of stumbling into a deep and muddy puddle. Black ichor sprayed from the monster in response, thick and sticky, accompanied by another of those otherworldly screams that seemed to drive an icicle into mind and soul. I lashed out feebly with my sword in response, what might have been a deadly thrust in another fight in spite of the lack of full intent, again glanced off the creature.
Savlo’s shot had injured the creature but not slowed it much. I narrowly sidestepped the monster’s riposte, beak snapping close enough that I felt the rush of air around it. It turned now in Savlo’s direction, reaching him in three strides of its unnatural feet.
He tried to dodge, but his ankle betrayed him and he bought dear what little distance he acquired. The creature’s beak, both fast and precise, snatched a chunk of flesh from the hunter, leaving a ragged gap between neck and shoulder, having stolen flesh and bone alike from the poor man. He had only started to turn his head to the wound when he slumped over, falling face-first in the dirt, twitching his death-throes.
Anger washed over me, overwhelming my fear. I took umbrage at the creature’s fortitude, the injustice of its resistance to us, the impunity with which it assaulted us. Without thinking, I flung my sword at the thing’s side, overhand, yelling my frustration as I did.
I expected the weapon to bounce aside, casually and pathetically, but the sword instead penetrated halfway to the hilt, which bobbed up and down happily as the blade flexed with the force of the blow. My shout had not just been some exasperated expletive—it had accompanied a further sorcery, one that had empowered the weapon to do its work. I had no time to recall how I’d extemporized such a fortunate working; the creature returned to press me.
Willingly disarmed, I drew my parrying dagger as a desperate last line of defense; it did me little good. By now, Aryden, Vitella and Daedys had caught up to me, their tired attacks at least pulling some attention away from me.
But the monster had been enraged now, too, and the desperation of its injuries only seemed to have strengthened it. It feinted with its head toward Vitella but kicked Aryden viciously instead, claws screeching as they left long dents in the lord’s breastplate and sprawling him.
In dividing my attention to my companions I had failed to maintain a safe distance from the creature; it knocked me to the ground with a casual turn of its head and neck, not the devastating blow from its previous charge but enough to put me on my ass again. With another flick of its neck it seized Daedys’ spear in its beak, ripping it from his grasp and pulling him prostrate as he attempted to hold onto it. The weapon snapped into two halves and fell to the avar.
Only Vitella stood in defiance of the beast now, it seemed, for I could not see Edanu. I presumed he’d lost his nerve and ran. Like mine, the Lady Vitella’s blade left only light scratches—minor annoyances—in the monster’s hide. But cold determination had replaced the aloof amusedness in her expression and I wondered to myself—inappropriately given the situation, I realize—at a sort of beauty that existed in such a frank display of willfulness.
The monster turned its neck to look at her, and I knew that hers would be the next life taken by the beast if nothing could be done. Still driven more by rage than hope, I grabbed the metal-tipped end of Daedys’ hunting spear and drove its point into the base of the creature’s neck. It didn’t penetrate, instead cutting only a shallow groove where scales met with leathery, feather-covered hide. If only I’d had been conscious of what I’d done to injure the creature with my sword!
The monster turned again, pulling its neck up into an “S”-like curve so that it could look down at me, its spider eyes intently focused upon me. It opened its beak slowly, pointed teeth within glistening with slavering spit. Slowly, it extended its neck, beak and tearing teeth coming ever closer to my face. I pushed against its neck with my hands, but even hale I’d not have had the strength to resist the force with which it approached.
Just as I’d resolved to look it in the eyes as it killed me, to defy it in that one meaningless way left to me, a shot rang out and a black fog exploded from the side of the thing’s head. As it fell on its side, lifeless, I saw Edanu standing there, still holding his caliver at the ready, close enough he must have almost pressed the muzzle to the monster’s face as he pulled the trigger.
I guffawed with surprise that he’d have bothered to save me; I would have expected him to wait until I, too had a massive chunk of flesh liberated from my body before he made that mortal shot. The emotion that followed, irrational as it might have been, was chagrin. I hated that I owed him something, the kind of debt not easily repaid.
My thoughts must have been plain on my face, for Edanu only shrugged. “You gave up your balls for this fight,” he smiled. “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything else.”
Despite myself, I smiled, too.

Frostgrave Continues

I haven’t posted about Frostgrave in a while, and I didn’t want you to think that I’d given up on the project. With NaNoWriMo going on, the kids, and everything else, it had taken a back seat to other projects, but I found some time over the holidays to do some serious work on my terrain. (I also only made 10,000 words progress on my novel-in-progress in December, but that’s a lamentation for another time.)

Word has come out that Frostgrave will receive a 2nd edition this year, with a release around June. I’m going to try to work to have my miniatures (warbands and bestiary) and terrain fully-painted and ready to go for that release.

I’ve decided that my “main” board for the game will be a set of modular 1 ft. x 1 ft. tiles with some pieces of freestanding, smaller scatter terrain. It’s easier to store, easier to set up and take down, and easier to expand. The Proxxon wire cutter has made my projects much easier and more elaborate (if not necessarily less time-consuming).

After using some of Gerard Boom’s (at arch templates and angle-cutting Proxxon add-on, I’ve recently ordered most of the rest of his Proxxon tools and I’m anxiously awaiting for them to arrive. The only ones I haven’t bought so far are the geometric shape cutter, the dome cutter, and the shapeshifter. I figured I’d work to get proficient with the other tools before I worry too much about those more complex ones. Already, though, I know I’m going to want them.  A new one will be available sometime in the coming months!

Spending some time studying techniques, combined with the new tools I have available, has allowed me to really “level-up” my terrain building skill. Below, you’ll see some progress shots and current-status pics of my latest work. I’m going to let it speak for itself rather than trying to put a whole lot more (digital) ink to (digital) paper for this post.


Of course, I’ve got lots of basing work to do (and a roof), and then it’ll be on to painting and detailing!

The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

Even if you’re not a United Methodist, you’ve probably seen on any given major news outlet the announcement that “The United Methodist Church is set to split over gay marriage…” (The Washington Post) or something similar. If you’ve gotten more than the headlines, you may have seen that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” was released today, having been signed on December 17th, 2019.

After you’re done snickering about the irony of the title (I know I did), let’s talk first about what the Protocol is (and isn’t). The Protocol is an agreement in principal between important “players” or “Powers that Be” within the UMC that includes a proposed separation between the more conservative branch of the denomination and the more progressive one. So, this is not binding law, a definitive action, a done deal, or anything final in any respect. The Protocol will need to be turned in to legislation that can be passed at the 2020 General Conference, at which point it can start to take actual effect.

Only sixteen people signed on to the Protocol as those directly involved in the agreement, but they represent much larger groups of likeminded people from large swathes of the Church, some directly, some indirectly. Most importantly, I think that the signatories to the Protocol represent all of the major positions that need to be considered as the Church finds its way forward.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that the Protocol represents an actual “way forward.” Using a well-respected attorney to mediate between the gathered power blocs within the Church, the Protocol represents a plan of separation that (hopefully) avoids litigation and further dispute.

As I’ve written before, my preference would truly be a means for conservatives and progressives to continue to be in fellowship together. That said, human nature being what it is, I (reluctantly) acknowledge that that does not look feasible any more. The Protocol, then, may be our last best hope at a resolution.

Under the Protocol, a traditionalist alternative denomination will be formed. Monetary resources from the UMC will be used to initially fund the denomination (and those churches wishing to move to it by vote will keep the local church property) and all other claims to UMC resources will be waived. That’s a fair and gracious resolution, I think.

I do think that the traditionalist position contributes to injustice in our world when it comes to certain issues–LGTBQ rights and acceptance as a local example of the consequences of a judgmental and literalist interpretive hermeneutic as the global issue is Exhibit A. But I also believe that, on other issues, traditionalists do alleviate suffering, increase justice and diligently serve the Lord. Because of that, I don’t take issue with providing monetary support for an amicable (as possible) separation.

Realistically, though, as I’ve also written before, I think that the traditionalist faction that is created won’t be of lasting significance. Christianity does not have a relevance problem–ours is a faith as meaningful and far-reaching today as it ever has been. But the archaic tradition of a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible, the focus on God’s judgment and on making sure everyone “does the right thing” over showing mercy to all people to the greatest extent possible, and the refusal to allow others to be who God created them to be is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s not a result of secular culture imposing a new and heretical view of Biblical authority; it’s a result of humanity’s maturity in its understanding of God and theology as expressed through the careful and well-meaning application of all of the tools God has given us to the interpretation of Scripture and the search for greater understanding of the nature of God as expressed in Jesus Christ.

I also (vaingloriously, I admit) feel vindicated by the fact that it is the traditionalists who will leave. In a previous post, I remarked that the Traditional Plan is untenable in the UMC: even if it narrowly passed at the Called General Conference, the resistance within elements of the UMC (I’d like to include myself in that group, though I have admittedly little influence on the actual shape of things) makes enforcement unfeasible. I feel that the Protocol acknowledges that reality. Is that a useful or edifying feeling? Of course not. But it still feels good.

Most important, though, the Protocol represents a good-faith effort by the various factions to come to an agreement as to how to move forward other than one side trying to force its praxis on the other. That is a testament to an attempt by all involved to genuinely live out their faith in Jesus; a message that our world desperately needs in a time of tribes, “us and them” (of which I’m fully guilty, I admit), and demonization of those who disagree with us.

When the Traditional Plan passed at the GC, those of us who felt dejected and rejected by that decision continued to hold out hope that the Spirit might still work something new in the UMC. I’d like to think that the Protocol is just that. It’s maybe not anyone’s first choice (which probably indicates a reasonable compromise), and it’s not exactly what anyone expected, but it may be exactly what we need.

Part of me wants to end on that note of hope, but it’s too early for that. The Protocol still needs to be turned into an actionable collection of legislation and a plan of amicable (and non-litigious) separation that garners the support of the larger UMC (or at least those who get to vote at General Conference this year). There is much work to be done.

I’ve further expanded my thoughts and provided some additional background to my perspective in a follow-up post available here.

Darwinism Doesn’t Exist in Star Wars (A comment on the Mandalorian)

Warning: (Minor) spoilers ahead.

As I’ve said, holidays are for faith, for family–and for Star Wars. I indulged in two of the three yesterday, binging the first four episodes of The Mandalorian (which I’d held back from watching for just this occasion) with my dad.

Part of me still expects to see Clint Eastwood’s face when the Mandalorian finally removes his mask given the laconic gunslinging of the titular character and the show’s rigid–maybe too rigid–adherence to the tropes of the western genre.

It’s a fun show, if a little simplistic. The fights have plenty of eye-candy (though also a lot of flaws for those of us with some knowledge of the way of the gun) and the plot paces along quick enough to leave the gaps in logic behind before you think too much about them. In that way, it’s classic Star Wars, though part of me also feels that this story could take place in any space opera setting and has Star Wars grafted on as fan-service more than being a story deeply embedded within the Star Wars universe–though this is perhaps my watching with a too-critical eye rather than a reasonably critical one. Did I say that the show is fun? I can’t say that enough–if you want something fun to watch and/or need a Star Wars fix, The Mandalorian will fit the bill nicely.

But I’ve mainly put this post here to rain on the parade of “Baby Yoda” memes and paraphernalia. Yes, the kid is super-cute. Yes, he’s very endearing. Yes, his antics are highly amusing. And yes, the Star Wars nerd in me is very excited to learn more about Yoda’s species (even if our reference to the character has been relegated to “Baby Yoda” because neither the character nor the species has yet been given a name). The problem, though, is that I don’t believe in Baby Yoda beyond his (her?) status as McGuffin and marketing ploy by Disney (one that is sure to be extremely successful, I’m sure).

Here’s why this post is placed in both the “Fiction” and the “Fatherhood” portions of the blog: I’m now six months into fathering Hawkwood and Marshal. It’s been tough, which was not unexpected but which doesn’t change the fact that it’s tough. I haven’t written too much about it on the blog lately as I’m still struggling through and sorting out feelings myself, and while I’m usually willing to parse through my thoughts and feelings publicly (at least insofar as the blog’s readership qualifies this a truly “public”), these I feel it’s more appropriate to play closely to the chest for the time being.

Suffice to say, though, as I know all parents do, I have times when I ask myself, “how much longer is it going to be like this? How much more can I take?” There are redeeming moments that take the edge off of that frustration, but managing it sometimes feels like a full-time job. On top of an actual full-time job, the task of raising and caring for the children, staying closely-connected with K, writing on my novel and the blog, and making some time for some other hobbies, it’s a lot.

And that’s why I find Baby Yoda such an unbelievable character. I can accept a species that lives for 900+ years. But one that remains a toddler for at least fifty years? Nope. A species cannot survive such a catastrophic development–though perhaps it explains why there are so few of Yoda’s kind in the galaxy and why those there are seem to be possessed of boundless patience and Zen-like stoicism.

Yes, Baby Yoda is extremely well-behaved for a toddler (at least so far as I’ve seen), though also possessed of a stubborn streak characteristic of the age. I don’t expect to see a scene where, furious, the Mandalorian throws his helmet on the ground (forgetting his oath, of course), utters a string of profanities and wonders why he ever made the decision to become Baby Yoda’s protector in the first place. It would be in keeping with the tropes of the category of story that’s being told here, it might be the deepest characterization of the Mandalorian we get, and it might be the most verisimilitude we could expect to see in a Star Wars story. But we won’t get it.

Now, I don’t want to bring up the shame of midichlorians again, but I can’t help but compare the idea of a creature that stays an infant for more than five decades to that level of storytelling gaffe. I know, I know, we’re talking about a setting that includes easy faster-than-light travel, stories following relatively unnuanced workings of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, the Force and many other elements that openly defy credulity and beg the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is part and parcel of the enjoyment and success of the setting. Even so, it’s often (for me, at least) the attention to verisimilitude in the details that paves the way for the greater fantastical elements of a setting. For example, this is, I think, what makes Max Brooks’ World War Z so wonderful–if you can accept zombies, the rest of the stories within play out thoughtfully and believably, making the acceptance of zombies a low price of admission.

To see that Darwinian evolutionary forces sometimes simply don’t exist in Star Wars undermines that willing suspension of disbelief–I enjoyed watching the show in spite of this, but I spent an inordinate time while viewing wondering how a toddler could survive fifty years of being a toddler, what kind of saintly parents would be necessary to make such a system work, what benefit there might be to having a creature mature so slowly, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Just me?

Chasing the Spirit

This will be a short post–probably. You all are aware of my proclivity to wax verbose.

Christmastime is my favorite time of the year. Or, that’s what I think every time it rolls around, even though I tend to think that springtime is my favorite time of year every Spring. The combination of nostalgia for past Christmases, the emotional response to the meaning of the season (even if we probably celebrate it in the wrong time of the year and all of that), the chance to see and spend time with family, and the chance to put work aside for a short while and just enjoy being human for a change all hits a sweet spot in my soul. But every year, I seem to complain that I haven’t been able to “get into the Christmas spirit.” At least not fully.

This may simply be the “can’t complain, probably still will,” mentality that tends to grip me in my curmudgeonliness (at least I recognize that, I suppose), but I feel that this year, I’m at least partly to blame. Yes, this has been a busy and hectic time. K is serving her first Christmas as a commissioned pastor in a new position (she put on a wonderful children’s Christmas service yesterday!)–which means, of course, she’s working crazy hours; we’ve got the kiddos to prepare Christmas for, and then there’s all that work to do, which has been busier than usual this December. There just hasn’t been that much time for enjoying Christmas.

But there’s been some, and when there has been, I haven’t availed myself of it unless forced to. I took Hawkwood to yesterday’s children’s service because of my husbandly obligation to attend and my fatherly duty to take my three-year-old. I found the service to be moving and to be one of the most enjoyable Christmas services I’ve attended in a long while, so I was exceedingly glad to have gone. But had I not felt obligated, I probably would’ve skipped it in favor of trying to catch some aseasonal relaxation–video games, writing, working on Frostgrave and RPG projects, watching the rest of the Witcher, etc.

I’m wrestling with that. Honestly, my attendance in church is something I regularly struggle with, and that’s just writ large at Christmastime. I always am glad to have gone to a church service–it helps center me, returns me to a remembrance of what is important, reminds me of how grateful I ought to be for the many blessings I’ve received. But it’s not the place where I feel closest to God. Church music is fine, but it doesn’t fill and inspire me like it does for others. I am fascinated by the ritual and liturgy of a church service, but not particularly moved by it. The sermon is typically the part of a service I enjoy most, but it’s not what I need from church attendance. I spend plenty of time reveling in the intellectualism and mystery of theology–it’s the emotional connection and the existential, mystic experience I don’t get enough of.

There’s the crux of it, I suppose. I’m not putting the effort into really seeking that elusive Christmas feeling, but lamenting not having it all the same. Maybe you feel the same way. If so, you’re in luck–there’s still time and grace for both of us.

The Fate RPG “Control Panel” v0.5

I made a mention in a recent post about a project I’ve been working on. It’s far from finished, but I’ve grown too excited about it to wait until it’s finished before I post it for initial use, review and comment.

As I’ve also mentioned before, there’s just so much I like about the Fate RPG ruleset (in its various incarnations) and its adaptability that I intend to use it to run all the games I run for the foreseeable future (you can see my post on (Roleplaying) Gaming as an Adult). The Bronze Rule (or Fate Fractal, depending upon your preference) and general modularity of the system makes it a prime candidate for seamlessly running a wide-variety of game genres, from soap-opera drama to the farthest-flung speculative fiction and everything in between.

Having read a good number of Fate RPG settings and system tweaks (from the official toolkits to community-created content), I understood that this system is highly customizable while retaining its core fiction-first and efficient-play philosophies. Until I began this project, I did not fully understand just how customizable the system really is, Working on this project has given me an even more profound respect for the system and its writers, but has also really helped me to grok how things can (and should) fit together and how the rules may be manipulated–large scale or subtly–to accentuate different parts of the fiction being portrayed at the table.

The project itself is a responsive Excel spreadsheet that uses drop-down menus and stacked levels of questions to guide the user through customizing the Fate ruleset to a desired setting. This allows the user to efficiently make selections without having to sort through the (rather voluminous) books using the Fate System to find various systems and ideas that can be “borrowed” for your own game while keeping a high-level view of the overall ruleset in mind to avoid losing the fiction-first and relatively-light crunch of the core system (unless you want to turn Fate into a fiction-first, high-crunch system, which it can also do!).  Use of this system is likely to do for you what it has done for me–give you a profound respect for the innovations that make the Fate system so versatile and efficient while also being highly-evocative of setting and theme.

I think that the system is in shape to be very functional as it is, but I have a lot more in mind for it. Additionally, as I use it to build rules configurations for my own use, and as I post my own Fate rules concoctions on the blog, I’ll add presets to the selections to allow you to easily incorporate those same systems into your rules modifications. For existing settings, I do so only by general reference to the setting to avoid any copyright issues, but you’ll still end up with a set of configurations that will allow you to create a rules booklet particular to your setting more efficiently than collating everything by hand.

So, here it is in all its premature glory: what I’m calling the Fate RPG “Control Panel.” I very much look forward to hearing your reviews and criticisms, understanding how you’re using the Control Panel, and hearing your suggestions for modifications, expansions and improvements. Note that I have not yet added full explanatory notes, so you may have to guess a little at what certain selections mean. Additionally, not all Extra sheets, skill lists, weapon/armor lists etc. are complete.

Fate Control Panel v.5 Public

(N.B.: Please download a local copy of the spreadsheet before making selections or changes. Also, you will need to enable Macros for everything to work.)

Roleplaying Mental Illness

I’ve been thinking about this topic a bit recently (for no particular reason recognized by my conscious mind, and nothing decipherable from my dreams, at least), and I thought I’d contribute my personal thoughts and opinions on the matter. A few prefatory notes:

  1. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve now lived with clinical depression for fully half of my life (thankfully well controlled so that its effects on me are minimum or none). I know what it’s like to struggle against mental illness, and I understand the stigma that still, unfortunately, exists in the minds of many. But this post isn’t about my experience. I believe that this is an important issue for all roleplayers, not simply on an awareness basis (though that, too), but also because mental illness, if handled well and by agreement of all involved, can add depth and drama to a story–but also runs a high likelihood of being offensive, misguided, and ridiculous when the topic is not handled with care.
  2. You’ll probably also note that my writing on gaming has been focused on Fate RPG at present. The Fate Accessibility Toolkit has been recently released, and my understanding is that it has a treatment of this topic as well. I have not read it, so I don’t know how my opinions fit with the approach therein. Regardless, I can’t imagine that reading multiple opinions and approaches on the topic would be harmful–likely it would be helpful.
  3. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist; I’m a lawyer, gamer, writer and aspiring theologian. None of my comments here should be taken as an attempt at serious medical commentary: we’re not talking about the pathology of actual mental illness here; we’re talking about fictionalized mental illness portrayed for dramatic and narrative effect in games we play–and portraying said fictionalized diseases and disorders in a way respectful to and mindful of those who live with the reality every day.

Getting It Wrong
I don’t have any particular instances I can think of where I had a player roleplay a character with mental illness in a way that was anything other than cartoonish, and that’s perhaps part of my basis for writing this post.

Let’s take an example many of us will be familiar with–a character playing a Malkavian vampire (or Malkovian if NWoD) in Vampire: The Masquerade (or Requiem, if you prefer). I have only seen players portray such characters as a bundle of nonsensical nonsequiturs intended to justify chaotic randomness and the player making all decisions by whim or, even worse, a roll of the dice. This is painful to all involved, except perhaps the player of the character, which is bad RPG group dynamics.

Not to offer criticism without an alternative, here’s how I think a typical Malka/ovian character should appear at the table: entirely “normal” most of the time. Then, occasionally, the character says something off, but in a way that might be a miscommunication, a bad joke, or something else that’s weird but only disturbing or threatening according to a certain interpretation. It’s only occasionally that mental malady truly overtakes the character, triggered by elevated tension or specific events, when it becomes painfully obvious that the character is gripped by beliefs or motivations that simply do not match with reason or the facts of the world. That inability to let go of incorrect beliefs or to overcome unwanted and unreasonable compulsions is where the horror of mental illness is found–for sufferer and for those around him or her. Vampire is a horror game, however, so that’s the point of portraying mental illness or psychological conditions in such a game–whether as a vampire who inevitably suffers from such or as a different type of character who suffers from the same for reasons mirroring those in the real world–unfortunate genetics, after-effects of injury or physical illness, unhelpful thought patterns maintained over time, mental trauma, etc.

The Age of Diagnosis by Committee
With the availability of Google, Wikipedia, WebMD and the like, there’s a growing habit among we who lack any significant training in psychology, to attempt to diagnose personality disorders or pathological mental illness in others. Most often this is our political figures (there’s even a current research trend to analyze sociopathic traits in the types of people who run for or are successful in political office, even if otherwise seemingly mentally healthy) and our celebrities, but it just as easily infiltrates our gossip about the people with whom we work and live.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Since the birth of neuroscience and psychology/psychiatry as well-respected fields of academic and scientific inquiry, historians have jumped at the opportunity to diagnose major figures in our past (particularly those whose behavior was erratic or who had a reputation in their own time for being mentally ill) according to modern psychological theory. There’s George III of England, who likely suffered from porphyria, any historical figure who claimed to have visions from God, who are most often retroactively diagnosed with either temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE-X) or schizophrenia, and plenty of persons we’d like to think of as having a mental illness to explain their crimes against humanity.

Of course, except in limited circumstances where DNA testing might be available and a mental illness had a wholly or mostly genetic cause, we really can’t know what historical persons did or did not suffer from. This trend is less about those analyzed and more about us, about the human tendency to want to categorize things into neat boxes to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty.

There is also a tendency to use this tactic to elevate our historical milieu over the past. We can says things like, “There was so much violence in the middle ages, a sociopath wouldn’t just find it easier to survive, he’d find it easy to thrive!” i.e., thank God we’re so much less violent and so much more reasonable now than people used to be. I doubt that very much. In the case of the TLE-X explanation, the point is most typically to apply a materialist paradigm to the past so that we can laugh about how backward and superstitious people were then and how much better we are now for embracing “reason” over religion (despite the obvious logical, philosophical and epistemological flaws in such arguments, which I’ve addressed elsewhere on the blog).

It’s precisely in the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent to mental illness where we find narrative drama. For several reasons, I’m going to suggest that we put down our DSM VI’s and focus on narrative.

Why Diagnosis is Unhelpful For RPGs
(1) It causes us to use stereotypes.
It’s likely everyone reading this (or nearly everyone, at least) has read or played in an RPG with a sanity system. I’m not going to point out any offending games specifically, but these systems tend to play out in one of two ways: Most often, the system involves preset categories of mental illness (usually given the names of official categories that might be found in the DSM) and prescribed behaviors for each category as a mechanic for something that, by its very nature, defies easy mechanics and particular expectations. Alternatively, the system relies on discrete behaviors rather than full categories.

Here are some of the problems with these systems: First, if the result of the “insanity” (a problematic word for such systems anyway) doesn’t match the instigating events, the disconnect makes the system lack any verisimilitude, which most often causes players to lose any interest in believability and play the system and its effects for laughs. Second, these systems often focus on limited behaviors, which builds idiosyncrasy in a character, but not necessarily serious character development. When the behavior, rather than motive, is the issue, the risk of cartoonish roleplay becomes exponentially higher.

This kind of system further pushes us toward caricature rather than character because it operates as a shorthand to approximate mental illness without much care toward our actual proximity to the truth of experience. My players love to roleplay, but most of them are not interested in doing a lot of research to play their characters. I cast no aspersions on that; every roleplayer has different goals in approaching the game and I suspect that most gamers want to focus on the game without having to do “homework.” But it means sloppy roleplaying on issues that require great research or experience to do well, like mental illness.  This is poor form on its own, but when you have someone at the table who has experienced mental illness, personally or in close loved ones, and who potentially continues to struggle with those issues, such a lackluster approach shows a disrespect and lack of empathy destructive both to relationships and to a safe gaming environment.

(2) It makes us rules lawyers of character.
I’ve played with enough gamers who believe that the rules as written constitute the “physics” of the game and trump everything else–fun, good narrative, drama, efficient play, etc. My personal opinion is that the culture, if not the history, of D&D pushes people toward such a belief (I understand that Old School gamers will vehemently disagree; this is a debate for a different set of posts).

When we translate this approach to a set of rules describing a mental illness a character may have, then the rules of the mental illness become a permission for bad behavior by the player. This is not a result of roleplaying mental illness itself, rather it is a prioritization of discrete values and prescribed results (i.e. rules) over the reality of mental illness. “The player argues, ‘because I have…uh, kleptomania…I have to steal everything I can from the Baron. And because I have schizophrenia, I believe that the rest of the party members actually did it, so I blame them.'” Not fun for those other players, probably not relevant to the narrative, not a development of the player’s character in any meaningful way and not a cooperative approach to roleplaying in a group–in other words: annoying, unrealistic, and offensive.

Despite the categorizations of the DSM VI and its predecessors, every presentation of mental illness is different (it is, after all, an expression of a unique soul and psyche), so pigeonholing a disease into a set of rote behaviors is contrary to experience.

It is commonly said that naming a thing gives you power over it. This may be the exception that proves the rule, where naming the thing gives it power over you as you feel obligated to meet a culturally–not experientially–based expectation of the thing so named.

(3) Human behavior is based on a complex interaction of beliefs, the matrix of preferences and thought structures that constitute personality, and experience. Not on hard and fast rules.
Again, I’m not an expert in psychology or psychiatry. But my training as a foster parent has opened my eyes to the complexity of behavioral motivations in children, particularly those with traumatic backgrounds, and I can’t imagine that the same is not true of adults.

My point here has a common thread with my two points above, but I’d like to think that the first point focuses on our respect for others, the second focuses on our approach to gaming, and this one focuses on our approach to narrative.

When we put a name on a mental illness, there will be a temptation to judge every choice a player makes in consideration of his character’s condition against the rubric of our expectations on the disease or disorder specified. Where above I discussed the problem of a named mental illness providing an excuse for a player to dump on his fellows, the opposite is also true–the other players may feel compelled to weigh in every time the player whose character has a mental illness touches on the mental illness as a factor in the character’s behavior and choices.

Sometimes, limitations foster creativity. Here, they only stifle a player.

Psychosis Because of That Which Should Not Be
The descent into madness is a well-tested narrative trope as well as a key feature of the Cthulhu Mythos–and I’d dare say that it was Call of Cthulhu that first broached the issue of sanity systems in games (but I haven’t done the research to verify).

But that’s not the only place that we see such a theme; there are many narratives–often horror–that center on such an idea. Losing the ability to discern reality from fantasy is an existential terror. Perhaps, though, that’s actually something separate from what’s going on in the Cthulhu-verse. There, it’s an exposure to a hidden reality that fragments the psyche. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t treat the results in a similar way, because the source of drama is the inability to differentiate between real and unreal (or meaningful and meaningless).

And this result, this slippery slope, this descent into a darkness in our discernment, has nothing to do with using shorthand diagnoses to act out a caricature of mental illness, nor does it need any name to work its drama and tension upon narrative.

The key here is having the player feel the same ambiguity and terrifying uncertainty that his character does–this lies wholly in the realm of the gamemaster, without need for reference to rules and dice. It begins subtly at first, with the GM giving a certain detail of a scene one way at first and differently later. Maybe it was an honest mistake, but maybe the player can’t trust everything the GM tells him. With a proper basis of trust between players and GM, the player will quickly come to understand that this is part of the story unfolding upon his character, not the GM being absent-minded or a jerk. As more important details get changed on the character, as he acts to devastating effect based on misperceptions fed to him by the GM (as the arbiter of the character’s sensory input), as the chain of events from a mistaken perception or belief becomes longer and longer before the player is able to realize that something isn’t right, the deeper the descent, the direr the desperation, the more doubtful the decisions made. This captures the experience of an unraveling mind without the need to diagnose schizophrenia or some other illness and then feel hidebound to its definitions. Furthermore, by not diagnosing anything, you increase the ambiguity about the character’s plight.

If necessary or useful, you can associate this system with some mechanic for measuring the abstract and relative loss of reliability in a character’s beliefs and perceptions–this can be done with a Fate-style stress track (though a use of Consequences may run into diagnostic issues), with a PbtA “countdown clock,” with a pool of points, or any other method used in RPGs to track condition, so long as the mechanics are used as a guide to how the GM portrays the character’s interaction with “reality” rather than a strict codification of behaviors or named psychoses.

It is popular now to have as many of the elements of a tabletop RPG as possible be  “player-facing.” This should not be, because that knowledge allows for extended metagaming and undercuts the effect of the distrust of the GM’s communications by giving the player something to compare or judge from. As I mentioned above, this requires a relationship of trust between player and GM and an agreement that everyone wants this to be an element of the game. The player needs to be willing to accept the discomfort and frustration that naturally accompanies this type of situation as a worthwhile experience (because it’s interesting from a “what if” standpoint, allows a safe exploration of an experience dangerous and terrifying to have in reality, or satisfies some other goal of the gamers coming to the table).

When It’s Not Me; It’s You
The horror game need not be the only genre in which mental illness may play a meaningful role in the game; nor does a descent into irrationality need to be the game’s focus, as it must surely be when the system described above is employed. How then, can we represent mental illnesses in a more balanced way that benefits the story but does not consume it? Particularly if, as I’ve argued above, any diagnosis of a mental illness is a Thing-Which-Ought-Not-Be-Named?

The answer, I think, is a relatively simple one. We focus on character beliefs that do not match with reality (as reality is generally accepted, I suppose). This could be a debunked conspiracy theory that a character unrelentingly clings to in spite of the evidence. It could be a wrong belief about some fact in the world, an impossible expectation, a delusion of self, a magnified fear, or a perceived relationship between things that anyone else would see as causally unrelated. These beliefs may be small ones that only rarely come up in the game, or they may be so fundamental that they almost always have some effect upon the character’s decisions.

If we focus on beliefs instead of behaviors and let the behaviors flow from the mistaken beliefs and perceptions, the character behavior will have a higher verisimilitude, greater fidelity in both dramatic interpretation and depiction of realistic characters and events. The risk of caricature remains if the beliefs in play are not carefully considered and crafted by the player(s) and GM, but even if the portrayal of the belief devolves into parody, that parody is farther divorced from any particular person who has been labeled as having a particular mental illness, somewhat blunting its offensiveness, at least.

This provides better guidance for the player than a set of strict “rules” of behavior to follow, is likelier to result in behavior more related to and helpful to the overall narrative of the game (or at least not obstructive thereto), and matches more with our experience of mental illness in others (at least mine).

Unless someone gives us a label to use or we fall into the game of armchair diagnosis of people who annoy or offend us (dangerous on many levels), we don’t experience other people as exemplars of particular disorders or diseases. We might call someone “crazy,” but in the colloquial and lay use of the term we mean exactly that the person acts in a manner we believe to be contrary to common sense, rationality, and the facts as we understand them to be, not that the person exhibits particular quantifiable markers that seem to indicate a particular differential diagnosis. We are better equipped to name a mistaken belief someone seems to have than to diagnose them, particularly when the illness is one of conscious and interior experience, not something plainly writ upon the body.

The focus on beliefs over expected behaviors also gives us a fuller view of the experience of mental illness. If you’ve watched The United States of Tara, you’ve seen at least one successful narrative that captures both the heartbreak and suffering involved in mental illness and the times where its effects are more lighthearted–perhaps even amusing. Likewise, centering our systems of “(in)sanity” in games on beliefs may allow us to more safely laugh at absurdity without laughing directly at a condition suffered by real, living people. That is my hope.

Corruption Systems and Sanity Systems Are Not the Same
In fantasy or otherwise “grimdark” settings, there is a tendency to have a system that represents the idea of “corruption,” though the meaning of that term is often ambiguous at best.

The term, I think, has its basis in the sense of “moral corruption,” as with the corrupting influence of Tolkien’s One Ring as a vessel of the corrupted and evil will of Sauron. Other roleplaying games and settings have used that term, but not necessarily the meaning. The roleplaying games for the Warhammer settings, for instance, typically have corruption systems. But these systems amalgamate an idea of moral corruption (usually, though, through the eyes of themselves corrupt societal structures) with the body horror of unwanted mutation (perhaps problematic for its symbolic portents for ideas of “purity”) and with the Cthulhuverse idea of a degradation of sanity and moral fiber that results from seeking out those Things-Which-Should-Not-Be!

I have numerous problems with conflating ideas of sanity and judgments of morality. On the one hand, there is a tendency going back at least as far as the 19th century, to call immorality or criminal activity a form of “insanity.” This dehumanizes those who commit criminal offenses, simultaneously insinuating that they cannot be held fully accountable for their choices because of mental illness and yet classifying all antisocial behavior as abhorrent and inhuman and thus allowing us to ignore the possibility that, under the right (wrong) circumstances, we might engage in just the same kind of behavior. Neither aspect of the argument is logical, philosophically or theologically sustainable, or even useful in a societal sense.

Perhaps I’m overthinking here (although I reject the existence of such a thing altogether), and I understand that some will respond, “Get over it; it’s just a game! What are you making such a big deal about?”

Regardless, both the would-be game designer and the aspiring theologian in me must protest the conflation of these ideas. If you want your game to have a conceit that exposure to certain things is damaging to the psyche, great; that’s what sanity systems are for.

If you want to have a system for the degradation of a character’s morality, fine, although my personal preference is that such ideas are a matter of roleplaying more than mechanics (though there are excellent ways to manipulate changes in character Aspects in Fate if you want a middle-ground).

If you want a system for body horror resulting from exposure to dark magics, that’s cool, too, if it suits your game and your players are on board.

But aggregating all three into a single system dilutes the effects of all of them, not to mention the philosophical problem of determining what the numbers mean for each of the influencing factors. Suffice to say, while mental illness may lead to immoral behavior, that behavior should probably be viewed in light of the mental illness as a mitigating factor in determining the extent of culpability, so morality and sanity systems should probably remain separate, unless you intend to make the argument that sanity and morality are closely intertwined, which I reject.

Like good fiction, good roleplaying allows us to explore difficult existential or experiential issues in a safe place where we can imagine the consequences that flow from particular troubling situations and then leave them at the table when we’re ready–or need–to walk away. Like other difficult issues–racism, religiously-motivated extremism and hatred, poverty, violence and all other manner of social strife–has a place in roleplaying, at least for those groups who want to struggle with “serious issues” over the course of their play (and not every gaming group, player, or campaign needs to). But when we choose to dive into such difficult topics that are also very real experiences for people who may or may not be sitting at the table with us, we have some moral responsibility, I think, to do so in a respectful and at least semi-realistic way. Not only is this good ethical roleplaying (which term now makes me want to think and expound more on the morality and ethics of roleplaying games), but without it we’re missing the point of including tough issues in our games at all.

When properly addresses, dealing with those tough issues in a roleplaying game opens up our eyes to things we may not have thought before, deepens our understanding, and increases our empathy for others. And that, in my mind, is roleplaying at its finest–when it entertains us, teaches us, crafts meaningful narrative and helps us to become better humans.

I’ve got a friend who is a gamer and fellow writer and who works professionally in raising awareness of, compassion for, and competency in dealing with mental illness. I’m going to ask her to at least comment on this post, if not write a follow-up (or perhaps rebuttal!) with her own ideas which, given her training and experience, likely have more weight than mine on this topic.

Nano-Update: Final!

It is finished.

Last week, both of the kids had the flu, so between trying to get work done and staying home with them, it became difficult to put all of the time into writing that I had hoped to. Neither K and I seemed to have caught it (thank God!), but I think we’re both still feeling a bit exhausted in scrambling to make sure they were comfortable while meeting work deadlines and trying to plan for the holidays.

Nevertheless, while I didn’t write as much as I’d wanted to, I did get enough in to hit my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo. Yay! I win! Although, I have to admit that I don’t actually feel much at all about hitting that deadline. The things I feel good about–a constant schedule of writing, feeling productive and creative while writing, reaping the benefits of the massive amount I’ve time I put into plotting the novel–really don’t have much to do with the event itself. And, given that the novel is looking more and more like it’s going to be right at 150,000 words when complete, 50,000 doesn’t feel like quite the big milestone it might be. I realize that this kind of treatment of NaNoWriMo might make me an asshole (I feel like it does given that completing NaNoWriMo is a significant achievement on the way to finishing a novel for aspiring writers such as myself). But, as they say with unassailable logic, “It is what it is.”

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m trying to finish (the first draft of) the whole thing by the end of the year; while I’ve previously been optimistic about this, the events of this past week especially have made me wonder whether I’ll be able to keep that up in light of all of life’s competing demands (though I do now believe that, if I didn’t have to work a “day” job, I could be a prolific writer). In order not to stress myself out overmuch, while I will continue to try to get the draft done by the end of the year, I’m going to focus more on making time to constantly work on it until it gets finished than worry too much about the deadline. We’ll see how it goes.

I’ve got a few side projects that will make their way to the blog in the near future. One, a set of optional rules for cybernetics and human augmentation in the Fate RPG system, should be out in a week or so.

Another (which I’m quite proud of) is an Excel spreadsheet to make adjusting Fate’s “dials” easy for planning new settings and campaigns in the system. There is a single-page Fate worksheet for this, but the dials it includes are relatively basic and do not account for many innovative rules mods that have been added by the many books that have been published since Fate Core first released. This spreadsheet will incorporate (by reference only–I’m avoiding any copyright issues by providing explanations of the rules referenced) sources from the Fate Toolkits to the Fate Plus and Fate Codex periodicals to rules from various published settings (like Transhumanity’s FateTachyon SquadronInterface Zero 2.0, etc.)

“Dials” will include variables such as number of character aspects, general category each aspect should fit, special aspects rules, whether you’re using Approaches or Skills (or both!), what your skill list will be (from options I’ve developed for my own games), what starting Refresh will be, how magic, gear, weapons, armor and human augmentation will be treated (if they need to have special rules at all), how many and what type of stress tracks you’ll use (and how they’ll be calculated), whether you’ll be using rules for Resources and Contacts, how consequences will be factored, how recovery will work, how character advancement will work and much more. It makes me excited to plan out different potential settings and games, and I hope to share that excitement with you. It is certainly possible to do all of this planning without the kind of tool I’m working on, but the spreadsheet (I think) allows you to look at the “big picture” and think about various rules mods you’re going to use will all fit together. I know one of my issues with the customization of the Fate system is that I get tempted to do too much when simpler methods can often accomplish the same results (or similar enough) while better keeping to the elegance and efficiency of the system altogether.

Spreadsheets with automatic referencing and drop-down menus is about the closest I get to computer programming, but I do enjoy it when I need something a bit more rote and that doesn’t take too much brain power to work on. This has been a little respite for those times when I’m too tired to write creatively but not ready to sit still and passively watch TV or something (at least not without multitasking, a bad habit of mine).

All of this is to say that I’ll be returned to doing some more regular posting on the blog in addition to trying to keep up with the novel’s progress. More to come soon!