Writing Is Magic

Writing is the closest thing we have to magic in this world.

It is necromancy; through it, the dead speak to us.

It is the transmutation of alchemy; through it, minds and lives are forever changed.

It is enchantment; with words we shape our world.

It is divination; by writing, we understand the past and sift through the skeins of possibility and probability for the future.

It is the apotropaic talisman; through words we inure ourselves to falsehoods and lies.

It is evocation; through words we summon spirits from the aether itself.

It is goetia; through words we bind our demons.

It is theurgy; in creation we mimic our Creator.

If you long for a world in which there is more magic, write.

Fighting Styles in WFRP 4e

If you’re a follower of this blog, you know that I am fascinated by swordmanship and historical European martial arts (HEMA), and that I very much enjoy roleplaying games that demonstrate some knowledge, however abstracted, of the actual practicalities of melee combat. In that vein, I’m going to discuss in this article melee combat and fighting styles in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 4th Edition.

Whether by intent or happenstance, the designers of WFRP 4e managed to capture some of the feel (and advantages) of certain fighting styles in their mechanics. This article will be partly a review of those design choices and their effectiveness, but a good deal of space will also be devoted to some character build advice in light of various fighting styles.

Generalities

The various incarnations of WFRP (for now, we’ll leave 3rd edition out–I very much liked what FFG was doing there, but it’s its own creature) have long erred toward deadly combat. The grittier feel, the pastiche of early 16th century Europe, and the incorporation of some of the less pleasant aspects of late medieval/Northern Renaissance life (treated, of course, with some humor) have always attracted me to this setting and ruleset over something like D&D (which has it’s own advantages and attractions, don’t get me wrong).

With regards to combat, there’s just enough of the feel of HEMA to sate desire, without something as complex and specifically focused on medieval combat as The Riddle of Steel. I have, years back, run a WFRP game using TRoS, with good result, and while that system will always have a fond place in my heart, my current mood does not need the full complexity (and time consumption) of that combat system in my already-tight gaming time.

The first thing that WFRP 4e gets right, I think, is opposed melee tests. Earlier editions first had the attacker make an attack test and, if successful, the defender could make a parry or dodge test to deflect. Omitting the additional step eases things along and captures more of the feel of HEMA, where combatants are not taking turns pounding on one another but involved in a complex and fast-paced set of test attacks, maneuvering, feints, parries, moves and countermoves. While it might be more “realistic” to have melee combat resolved by a single opposed test, winner scoring the hit, the attack roll vs. defense roll allows for additional mechanics (like certain Talents and weapon Qualities) that further deepen the choices available in the system.

The second point is the (optional) rule for bonuses and penalties for relative weapon length and In-fighting (WFRP 4e p. 297, hidden in the Consumer’s Guide and not the Combat section). These rules are simple enough not to slow combat while providing a greater significance for choice of weapon in particular circumstances. In fact, the In-Fighter and Enclosed Fighter Talents really aren’t of much use if the GM is not taking bonuses and/or penalties for weapon length into account. In my opinion, these rules should always be used.

Hit locations, critical hits by location, and piecemeal armor likewise add to verisimilitudinous combat. Wounds are visceral and specific, the choice of how much armor to wear–and where to wear it–matters. Again, this really only works to full advantage if the GM and players are paying attention to the Encumbrance rules. I realize that many GMs and players hate using all but the most abstracted of Encumbrance rules, but these really aren’t that bad and are worthwhile in the end.

Some players don’t like their characters to be permanently injured and/or disfigured, and I understand that, but the roleplaying opportunities that are opened up by these systems should also not be overlooked (the Physician career is an extremely valuable one in WFRP!). If necessary, allow means of reversing permanent injuries (Shallyan blessings or Jade magic) some additional prevalence and accessibility–give your players a few scenes or sessions to grapple with lasting injuries with the hope of undoing them in the long-run. Some groups, of course, are happy to retire characters who sustain significant injuries (and content with a high character death-rate to boot), and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Further methods of keeping visceral injury while softening the long-term effects would be to adopt a troupe-style play system (where each player has several different characters to choose from in each session) or to allow a greater carry-over of XP between characters than the rules-as-written provide for.

The Advantage system in the core book, though perhaps more narrative than realistic, does provide a method for mechanically mapping the fact that, once a fight hits a crucial turning point, it becomes more and more difficult for the underdog to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Group Advantage system in the Up in Arms supplement provides a system more in line with Wrath in Wrath and Glory, which is mechanically satisfying and promotes teamwork amongst players (both in themselves admirable goals) but provides less verisimilitude than the core system. On the other hand, no one wants to watch their character get hit right out of the gate and then be locked into a long pummeling as the opponent gains ever more Advantage, so opinions may vary.

The last thing I’d like to point out here before moving to specifics is the use of weapon and armor Qualities. I don’t always agree with specific choices made by designers from a “realism” standpoint, but I find that they are well-written to provide for actually-different styles of fighting. I’ll mention some of these minor criticism and some ideas for “correcting” them below.

Fighting Styles and Builds

Combat Skills and Characters

Note that the Endeavors rules (WFRP 4e p. 195) make it relatively easy to learn the various Melee skills outside of a character’s career, but much more difficult to learn Talents from outside of one’s career. Therefore, if your character is not in the Warrior class, or one of the careers in other classes that contain combat Talents, err on the side of combat styles that require few or no Talents.

If your table has altered the way you treat the Unusual Learning endeavor for purposes of Talents, then the above may not apply. You may also plan to move between careers (and classes) to collect the skills and Talents you want for your character. Personally, though, I could drive myself mad in consideration of all the different possible career combinations focused on acquiring specific Skills and Talents, so I would also consider letting the narrative dictate your career choices and taking the below into account as a separate consideration.

Sword and Shield: The Go-To Style

The sword and shield (or buckler) fighting-style should be the go-to fighting-style for most characters, and particularly those without much skill in combat. This style offers good advantages without having any Talents dedicated to it and can become even more effective with just a few Talents.

Characters who do not intend to fight unless absolutely necessary should carry a sword and buckler. The first advantage of this is that a sword has only 1 Encumbrance and the buckler has no Encumbrance. The buckler provides both an armor bonus to all areas (with the Shield 1 Quality) and a bonus to defense (with the Defensive Quality) and they are, relatively speaking, easy to acquire and inexpensive. As a bonus, this follows historical precedent: in 16th century England, the sword and buckler were known as “the servingman’s weapons.” They were easy for retainers to carry (where weapons were allowed) and also allowed for shows of bravado in fighting the retainers of other nobles houses while minimizing (to the extend possible while swinging sharpened steel) of significant injury. (On the other hand, the earliest fighting manual of which I’m aware, the Royal Armouries Ms. I.33, a German sword-and-buckler manual from around the 1320’s, also demonstrates the complexity of sword-and-buckler fighting and its usefulness for skilled combatants).

Shields fall under the Melee (Basic) skill, meaning that your character may start with some skill in the style even in a non-combatant career, and the Unusual Learning Endeavor allows easy training in the skill even if it is not a career skill. Regardless of Talents, this weapon combination is strong one. As a side note, my read of the rules (particularly those regarding off-hand parrying weapons) leaves the possibility that defending with a shield in the off-hand (without the Ambidextrous Talent) imposes a -20 penalty on rolls. However, I believe that that would be a misreading of the rules as intended and that using a shield imposes no penalties to defense.

As a point of strategy, I would recommend that the sword-and-buckler fighter use the Fighting Defensively rules (WFRP 4e p. 158, upper sidebar) to first generate Advantage. If you’re using the Advantage rules from the core book, this allows you to potentially generate a significant bonus to your tests before going on the offensive. If using the Group Advantage rules from Up in Arms (p. 132-136), you don’t gain Advantage for winning defensive opposed rolls (the test must be one you initiated to gain Advantage). Still, for a character not intended for fighting, use of defensive fighting until you can get help from a more-skilled ally must be considered.

There are two Talents that may be of particular benefit to the sword-and-shield fighter: Reversal and Shieldsman. Both are somewhat contingent on which Advantage system you are using (Core or Up in Arms Group Advantage), so I’ll address them under each system:

Under the core Advantage system, Reversal allows you to take all of an opponent’s Advantage on a successful opposed melee test (including defense). That could potentially be a tide-changer. On the other hand, it’s usefulness is limited by the fact that, under the basic rules, your opponent would lose all Advantage and you would gain one Advantage anyway. Shieldsman is also of somewhat dubious use; the core description of the Talent gives you Advantage when you lose one the defensive side of opposed melee test. The cost for gaining the benefit of the Talent is high; I’d rank “don’t get hit” among the top rules of combat, so maybe pass on this one. The good news is that, under the core Advantage system, there’s not a strong reason to devote XP (or career choices) to specific combat Talents at all.

Both Talents become much more useful under the Group Advantage system: Reversal as revised in Up in Arms retains the benefit of gaining Advantage on successful opposed tests while defending with a shield. Shieldsman allows you to spend Advantage to deal damage when successfully defending (or to push your opponent). Since those careers that include Shieldsman do so at level two, this is one of the easiest Talents to achieve to increase damage output (through a pesudo-extra-attack)–but contrast with Two-Weapon fighting below.

The concepts above are equally applicable to sword and shield as to sword and buckler. The advantages of the larger shields are additional armor points and the ability to oppose ranged attack tests at the cost of increased Encumbrance. If you’re character is going to be at the forefront of the fighting, a larger shield makes more sense than the buckler.

As a last consideration in this style: the bonus armor points from shields are especially helpful if you are wearing light or no armor. But what about heavier armor? The Knight, Knight of the Blazing Sun, and Knight of the Panther careers all assume you’ll be donning heavy armor (see below) but also contain the Shieldsman Talent. I think that a shield is less useful when wearing heavier armors for several reasons: (1) you’re much likelier to be over your basic Encumbrance allotment, (2) there are better weapons to use when you already have high armor (such as polearms and two-handed weapons, see below), and (3) you hit somewhat diminishing returns on armor points by stacking in this way.

Fencing: The Masterclass

By “fencing” I mean the use of the rapier and parrying dagger (“main gauche”). This style offers some excellent benefits but requires a character who is devoting the majority of their XP to fighting. In fact, my personal view is that this method of fighting is too costly outside of the Duellist career. Some benefit may be seen by fighting with rapier and buckler for those outside of the Duellist career who do not want to spend too many resources on combat.

I’ll address the latter situation first: WFRP’s description of the rapier doesn’t actually fit the typical description of the mid-to-late 16th-century and early 17th-century rapier (which would have been a long thrusting weapon with a blade cross-section that doesn’t allow for strong cutting, if any at all). Instead, it describes the “cut-and-thrust” swords that began to focus on the thrust but retain strong cutting ability (the “espada ropera”). These begin to show up in the early 16th-century and continue alongside the development of the rapier. The confusion of terms is entirely forgivable, as the distinction is really a modern one and the contemporary terms used to describe sword types lacked hard categorizations that would be satisfactory to the 21st-century scholar. For ease, I’m going to follow the WFRP naming convention and use “rapier” generally.

The buckler was used with both types of weapons (the “cut-and-thrust” swords and the “true” rapier). In WFRP, you only need the Melee (Fencing) skill to gain the benefits of the rapier–you get the defensive benefits from the buckler without having to acquire the Melee (Parry) skill (see below). What are those benefits? The rapier has three potential advantages over the basic sword: the Fast and Impale Qualities and a long length rather than average (despite the description of the sword given, the mechanics of the weapon do seem to lean toward the “true” rapier intended particularly for thrusting). Again, with the weapon length rules, this can be a good additional advantage (though context matters, and tight spaces or in-fighting will make the weapon a liability, as was historically the case). Fast and Impale are the real attraction. Fast allows you to make attacks outside of the Initiative order and imposes a -10 penalty to defend for weapons that do not also have the Fast quality. Impale increases the likelihood of Critical Hits. If you want to spend some of your character resources on combat skill, but not too many, rapier and buckler is a strong choice, requiring only a single Melee skill and no Talents to get solid benefits.

The “true” fencer is the one who devotes great resources to combat with rapier and an off-hand weapon (cloak or parrying dagger, primarily). In such a case, both the Melee (Fencing) and Melee (Parrying) skills are required (the Parrying skill, not the Fencing skill is used for defending with the off-hand weapon, otherwise a -20 penalty is suffered, so the Defensive quality of the parrying weapon is useless without the proper skill). What are the benefits of the parrying dagger over the buckler? There are a few: first, the dagger gives you a backup weapon in the case of in-fighting, hedging some of the liability of the rapier. Second, the off-hand dagger does not have the Undamaging Quality (which shields do) in the case of dual-wielding attacks. The cloak offers the Entangling Quality rather than a significant attack, which may be a worthwhile exchange when fighting in a group.

I’ll also pick out the “hidden” advantage. As discussed below, the Ambidextrous and Dual Wielder Talents are requirements for the successful use of rapier-and-dagger in making two attacks per turn. Both Talents apply equally to ranged weapons and melee weapons, meaning a character can carry a brace of pistols, fire them both in the first round of combat (before others have a chance to react if you have the Fast Shot Talent), switching to sword-and-dagger to follow. That gives two high-damage attacks that may cause the Broken condition right out of the gate, an impressive opening move.

The rapier-and-off-hand fighting style needs several Talents to reach full potential. As mentioned above, Ambidextrous (two levels, for 300 XP in-career) and Dual Wielder remove all penalties to making attacks with both weapons in a turn. Levels in Riposte allow a character to deal damage while successfully defending with a Fast weapon (a number of times in a turn equal to the levels in Riposte). Combined with the two-weapon-fighting talents, a character using this style can put out a lot of damage in a turn, against multiple targets.

This combination of Talents is only found in the Duellist career, meaning only characters in that career are especially well-suited to this style of combat. Fortunately, that class is also full of other useful Talents: Combat Reflexes is of only some use given the Fast quality of the Rapier, but Beat Blade, Distract, Feint, Step Aside, Combat Master, Reaction Strike and Strike to Injure are all strong combat Talents (if somewhat contextual). Disarm seem to me to be a niche Talent; most of the time it will be a better choice to deal damage.

Two-Handed Fighting: The Damage-Dealer

The downside of the Two-Handed fighting style is that it requires a skill only a few careers have access to (though far more than the Fencing and Parrying skills). The upside is the Qualities available on two-handed weapons. I believe that this is a fighting-style worth considering even for characters outside of careers particularly suited to it (such as the Up in Arms Greatsword career.

I’m going to focus on swords here, as they have fewer downsides when compared to the Great Axe, Pick and Warhammer (which can be great weapons for tough and heavily-armored characters). The Zweihander gives you the Damaging and Hack abilities, which are both excellent. Damaging allows you to use the one’s place of the attack roll rather than the Success Level to calculate additional damage. That could mean up to 9 additional damage on a roll that barely hits–combine this with an already-high damage rating (SB+5), and you have the potential to drop many combatants in a single blow. Hack deals damage to armor, helping you win fights by attrition against heavily-armored opponents. Additionally, the high damage output can be an extremely efficient way to secure multiple attacks in a turn if using the Deathblow! optional rule (

The Bastard Sword trades out Hack for Defensive but retains Damaging; this is a very worthwhile trade in my mind.

Two-handed fighting lends itself to heavy armor, which I’ll address separately below. Aside from those Talents generally useful for combat, I find the Berserk Charge, Strike Mighty Blow, Strike to Injure, Very Strong, and Resolute Talents particularly useful for the two-handed fighter.

The knightly careers and Greatsword career are most suited to two-handed weapons as a style, though the basic Soldier career can be used, and, if willing not to worry too much about the Talents, any career could acquire the skill through the Unusual Learning Endeavor.

A brief aside for some rules modification changes: the Zweihander is a very specific Renaissance weapon, one designed for fighting pike formations and not general combat. It averages six feet in length, up to eight pounds or so (extremely heavy for a melee weapon), has a long grip, often hooks on the blade and a leather-wrapped ricasso (the portion of the blade that is not sharpened, closest to the hilt). The purpose was to swing the weapon like a big sword to knock long pikes out of the way (or potentially chop them up) and then to shift to holding the weapon like a spear (with one hand on the hilt and the other on the ricasso) upon closing with the enemy. The first technique allowed you to close in without being stabbed; the second shortened your weapon for closer combat while pikemen were struggle to drop their pikes and draw their swords. Outside of this situation, other two-handed swords were faster and more effective.

WFRP and Games Workshop seem to use the terms “Zweihander” and “Greatsword” interchangeably. A greatsword unlike a zweihander, was of a more modest length (closer to four feet, with plenty of variation either way in a matter of inches) and weight (three to four pounds). The greatsword was differentiated (or at least is now) from the longsword (a two-handed sword, despite what D&D tries to tell you) by its focus on the cut rather than having a blade shape more versatile between cutting and thrusting.

I believe that the weapon in WFRP really represents the greatsword rather than a zweihander. A zweihander write-up should have two entries: one for using the weapon like a huge sword, one for using it in a more spear-like manner.

While I’m nitpicking, I think WFRP’s “bastard sword” really represents a more traditional longsword. I’d changing that naming and I’d use the following for a true bastard sword (which often had a blade shorter than a longsword but could be wielded in one or two hands): I’d make damage SB+4, length Average, and give it the Defensive and Fast Qualities when used in two hands and no Qualities when used in one hand. Set cost and availability by reference to the two-handed weapons and the basic sword, leaning toward the former.

Polearm Fighting: The Versatile Choice

At face value, polearms are very similar to two-handed weapons. They have a dedicated skill (Melee (Polearms)), the weapons take two hands to use, seem to favor a heavier choice of armor, and even have similar stats (with polearms generally doing less damage than two-handed weapons).

The difference is that polearms offer versatility in a single weapon. For this article, I’m going to focus on the Bill, Halberd, Partizan/Glaive, and Pollaxe. Each of these weapons has the Defensive quality–if eschewing a shield in favor of a two-handed weapon, this offers some parity between the styles. Each then, based on the specific design of the weapon, offers some combination of Hack, Impale, Pummel, Slash (2A) and Trip. The specific choice of weapon should perhaps depend on your character’s Talents: Pummel is especially useful with Strike to Stun, but of limited use otherwise. Hack, Slash, Impale and Trip need no particular Talents. All but the partizan have Hack, making them useful for those times you need to wear down an armored foe. Impale is generally useful for increasing Critical Hits. Because Slash requires a Critical Hit, and the partizan gives you the choice between Impale and Slash, the combination is perhaps less effective than others. Trip can be an excellent Quality, particularly if used to set up strikes by teammates (or if using Group Advantage and spending for immediate follow-on attacks).

I would be comfortable saying that the choice between two-handed weapons and polearms is a toss-up and depends on your character’s (and your group’s) needs. I personally lean towards the two-handers.

Since I’ve made some suggestions for weapon changes in the categories above, I’ll do so here as well. Historically, there were two major styles of using a spear and/or quarterstaff (and these correspond somewhat with the use of other polearms). In the English style, the focus was on the thrust, making the weapon fast to strike and useful for maintaining distance. The German style wielded the weapon much like a longsword, focusing on strikes rather than thrusts and better able to defend against incoming attack. Switching between methods is not terribly difficult on the fly. That being the case, I would add Defensive or Fast to the spear (I’d also allow players to choose between Long and Very Long lengths) and change the quarterstaff’s Defensive to Defensive or Fast.

Cavalry: I’ll Take Swords for Five-Hundred

The lance and demi-lance are useful weapons…once. The Impact Quality makes them truly devastating, but outside of the battlefield, how often are you really going to use one? That leaves the Cavalry Hammer and the Sabre. Both use Melee (Cavalry) from horseback but a different skill (Melee (Two-Handed) and Melee (Basic), respectively) when on foot. The hammer has Pummel so, if your character also has the Two-handed skill (and Strike to Stun, preferably) it might be preferred. However, none of the Knight careers have the Talent (I might have thought the Knight of the White Wolf would), nor does Cavalryman or Light Cavalryman. Less than useful, then. On the other hand, the sabre uses a widely-available skill (all of the careers mentioned above get Melee (Basic), though Freelancer and Knight do not until Level 2). The sabre can be used in one-hand, allowing for the use of a shield and retains the Slash Quality (though it changes from 1A to 2A unless you use it with the Melee (Fencing) skill, but why bother), making it better than a basic sword.

The choice here is clear.

Armored Combat: Do You Even Lift, Bro?

Given the danger of combat in WFRP, armoring up as early and often as possible can be a useful choice. But it’s not necessarily an easy one. First, you need to look at the inherent penalties that accompany certain pieces of armor (particularly helmets and plate leggings, but bear in mind you suffer -10 to stealth if wearing any chain or plate). Then, you need to consider the Encumbrance penalties from lots of armor: you’re very likely to suffer -1 Movement and -10 Agility from your armor (And that’s before you consider your weapons and any traveling gear. Also, don’t travel in your heavy armor unless you’re expecting a fight).

A full suit of Plate Armor will give you 10-11 Encumbrance points from the get-go. You may want to wear some chain or leather under it (you can choose either or combine them). The relatively low ratings of armor (even plate) means that you either need to double up or accept that there’s a high cost and quickly diminishing returns for wearing lots of armor. But armor rating isn’t the only consideration: plate armor allows you to ignore half of Critical Hits, and that’s no small thing.

A fairly well-rounded set-up with some “oomph” to it would be a leather jack, leggings and skullcap under a breastplate and open helm. That gives you three points of armor on head and torso with one point on arms and legs and six points of Encumbrance. Add a shield and you get another one (buckler, no encumbrance) or two (shield, one additional Encumbrance). Even that, though, will put you into Encumbrance penalties unless you’ve specifically built your character in expectation of wearing armor.

Your basic Encumbrance level is Strength Bonus plus Toughness Bonus. You’ll want to get these stats into the forties as soon as possible. Very Strong and Very Resilient will be of significant benefit, if you can get them. Strong Back and Sturdy should also be acquired if you can. With the exception of the Knight of the Blazing Sun, all knight careers offer Sturdy at Level 1. Sturdy increases your Encumbrance rating by 2 x level, so picking up several levels before advancing would go a long way.

Bear in mind diminishing returns: assuming you get your Strength and Toughness up to at least forty and take four levels of Sturdy (a whopping 1,000XP), your Encumbrance maximum would be fourteen. You’ll have two to three points of Encumbrance for your weapon (assuming you’re not carrying several), leaving you eleven points for that full suit of plate with nothing underneath.

A durable set-up would be full plate (closed helm) with a mail shirt, a leather jack, leggings and skull cap. That’s fifteen encumbrance, plus three for your weapon. So, if you can get your Strength and Toughness into the forties and take one level of Sturdy, and tolerate the first level of Encumbrance penalties, you’re good to go. Take two levels of Sturdy and you can add a medium shield for even more protection. Without the shield, you’d have five AP on your torso and three AP everywhere else (while ignoring half of Critical Hits). With the shield and a Toughness bonus of four, you’re ignoring the first nine points of damage–that’s not too shabby.

Bear in mind, though, that the Robust Talent adds damage reduction per level of the Talent in a manner similar to Armor Points. You should strongly consider (if available to your character), adding this to the list of your character’s Talents if pursuing a front-line fighter, armored or not.

The Knifefighter: Close and Personal

This is not a mainline fighting style; it should be reserved for those characters who never intend to fight fair but may need to do some dirt from time to time–particularly when the victim–erm, opponent–is unawares.

Knives and daggers don’t do a whole lot of damage to begin with (and knives have the Undamaging Quality), so a high Melee skill and Strength bonus will be helpful. On the same lines, the Strike Mighty Blow Talent would be useful, as would the Stealth skill. The Combat Reflexes, In-Fighter, Enclosed Fighter and Disarm Talents would all be useful if you are unable to take down your target in the first strike.

There may also be times when a dagger or knife is all you have on you–the social or legal formalities may prevent the carrying of serious weapons in certain areas, or you may simply be caught traveling light. All of the above would help in such situations; as the goal when outgunned should be to break off the engagement and survive, the Flee! Talent may prove useful in such situations.

The Brawler: Back to Basics

The Brancalonia Roleplaying Game emphasizes as part of its genre that the law is unlikely to take much notice of the occasional bar brawl or streetfight where no weapons are produced and no “serious” injuries are inflicted (though unarmed combat can, of course, prove deadly). The same idea fits in WFRP: there are plenty of times when the Powers that Be simply have too much else going on (or simply don’t care) to deal with petty conflicts that do not involve anyone of importance. Further, there are some times when violence is a means to an end and not the end itself–the Protagonist and Racketeer careers are plenty evidence of this. You’ve always got your fists (almost always, anyway), and sometimes a knuckleduster is easier to carry into a restricted area than even a knife.

Then there’s the historical fact that all combatants were expected to have some skill in unarmed combat. Learning to brawl was a part of childhood, a fundamental that ought to be established before teaching skill in any weapon, and a common feature of melee combat even when weapons were involved. For all of these reasons, a character whose identity (read: career) involves combat ought to have some proficiency in the Melee (Brawling) skill. Most of the Talents applicable to knifefighting above, as well as the Dirty Fighter talent, make for good supplements. But, unless the character expects to do a lot of roughing people up without permanently injuring them, the Brawling skill is secondary to the armed-combat skills.

Conclusion

I hope this article has given some ideas of how the WFRP system captures the “feel” (to the extent that we can honestly reconstruct it) of medieval/early-modern combat without adhering to intricate and byzantine complexities. I hope also that it’s given you some solid build advice on choosing what kind of fighting techniques and equipment will best suit your character. On the other hand, there were a number of “masters of the art of defence” in the period, and a character whose ambitions lie in becoming one among them could be interesting to play and an effective member of a party. There are a number of ways such a character could go, moving between careers as necessary to represent different courses of study.

If I’ve missed something you see in the WFRP system, or if you’ve got other thoughts to contribute to mine above, I look forward to hearing from you!

Addendum – Shields and Melee (Parry)

It has been brought to my attention that the WFRP4e errata “clarifies” the use of shields. Despite the listing of shields as “basic” weapons, the errata states that a -20 penalty should be assessed to a character defending (or attacking) with a shield unless the Melee (Parry) skill is used, forcing a player to decide whether they want to trade AP for a -10 penalty on defense (as a shield adds its AP to all locations and the -20 penalty is partially offset by the +1 SL to defense tests granted by the “Defensive” quality) or whether they want to devote precious character resources to the Parry (Melee) skill. AP are nice, but not getting hit is better–especially in a system as deadly as WFRP!

From a mechanical standpoint, this makes very little sense. Instead of providing a solid (and marginally affordable) defense for characters less-skilled in combat it provides a nuanced and ultimately problematic choice. And, from a historical/practical perspective, this is not how shields work. I’ve never sparred with someone using a shield where the shield made them easier to hit. To my knowledge, none of my shield-wielding sparring partners were either ambidextrous or had any training in sword-and-dagger or rapier-and-dagger styles of fighting (I’m thinking here of situations that would translate to the mechanical reduction of the shield penalty described above under the WFRP rules). The use of a shield is instinctive and natural, while it may require training to fully master, it requires little or none to achieve basic proficiency. The nicest thing I can say about the errata is that it’s a headscratcher of a design choice.

Needless to say, if you give effect to the errata in adjudicating your game, almost all of the advice I’ve given above in the main article regarding shields goes out the window. I’m inclined to believe that that should not be the case. You are, of course, free to disagree.

So, how do we remedy this issue, should one be so inclined? The simplest thing to do is to just ignore the errata statement–there is no penalty to defending with a shield and it uses the Melee (Basic) skill. But, if you want to take a more moderated approach, remove the penalty and also remove the AP bonus or the + 1 SL to defense–I’d personally lean toward removing the former. Alternatively, you could remove the penalty but say that the Melee (Parry) skill must be used to get the additional +1 SL to defense tests. That would at least replace stick with carrot.

Addendum – Damage

Having now played a few sessions under the new rules, I must admit some shock at the particulars of attack and defense rolls. I had mistakenly taken for granted that attack and defense worked mostly like previous editions: i.e. (1) the attacker makes a test, (2) defender makes a test (which I viewed as a parry test in previous editions but now made automatic), and the attack fails if either the attacker fails at his roll or the defender succeeds at his. This is not the case. The current system has each side make their test and calculate their success/failure levels separately, with success levels represented by positive numbers and failure levels by negative. The difference between the two (assuming the difference is in the attacker’s favor) is added to damage dealt. In other words, the defender’s result is subtracted from the attacker’s result and, if the sum is a positive number, the attacker deals the sum as extra damage. The result is essentially the same as if we were using a roll-high system where each side rolls dice and adds applicable bonuses and then the defender’s result is subtracted from the attacker’s result to determine whether the attack was successful and, if so, how successful. It’s the fact that we’re using a roll-under system here that gives the approach some quirks. The foremost of these quirks is that the attacker can technically fail his roll and win–if the defender fails their roll by a greater number of levels. That situation “feels” odd but is mechanically effective.

Because the statistical effects of a mechanic and the “feel” of the mechanic do not always coincide (human perception and emotion being the odd thing that it is), player’s ought to be prepped for this potential result so that they are not blindsided by an attack they think has failed based on the attacker’s roll but that has not because of the sum of both rolls. Is that logical? Not really, but to effectively deal with another’s emotions, we must accept those emotions as they are rather than telling the person whether they “should” or “should not” feel that way. Be prepared.

At the same time, this system allows for some truly massive damage to be done in a single strike. That’s not necessarily a bug, you might well see it as a feature, especially given the reputation and intent that WFRP combat be lethal. I’m not particularly in favor of altering the “rules as written” in this case, but I do want to point this out so that individual tables can make sure the system is working for them and not vice versa.

If you don’t want your characters to be so susceptible to unlucky falls of the dice, you might consider altering this rule so that only the attacker’s positive success levels are added to attacks as additional damage. That makes characters slightly safer, but also drags out your fights, makes armor that much more effective, and probably has some additional effects I’m not thinking of, so proceed with caution.

Blades in the Dark: A Different Kind of Fiddly

As I’d mentioned before, I’ve been, off and on, playing in a campaign of Blades in the Dark over the past few months. I’ve played or run several other iterations of the Powered by the Apocalypse system, but this has been my first foray into actual play of a Forged in the Dark Game. Rather than give a traditional review–as so many have already done this capably–I’m going to leave some remarks about specific “issues” with the game (read “nuances” rather than “deficiencies”). Most of the things I’ll talk about are really aspects of the same issue: BitD requires a very skilled GM to run well.

All Improv, All the Time

That may be an overstatement, but, as with PbtA games, the “freeform” and “narrative” focus of the BitD system puts a lot of pressure on the GM and requires a lot more from them. Every roll requires some level of interpretation, and there is less scaffolding for that interpretation or how to work out the consequences of certain actions as with other, rules-heavier games. There is, of course, an upside to this; otherwise, John Harper’s game would not have become such a successful system being adapted to so many other games.

The benefits mostly accrue to the players, however, at least in practice as I have experienced it. In D&D, for instance, the existence of certain feats and class abilities implies restrictions on characters who do not have those abilities. Not a rogue? You can’t Backstab, so you’re not as likely to choose to sneak up on someone and stab them in the back. Yes, BitD does have “classes” and “abilities” in the playbooks, but these tend to give added bonuses to certain actions without depriving others of meaningfully taking those actions that a more tactical game does not. I’m always telling players, “don’t look at the rules; tell me what you want to do and we’ll figure out how to use the rules to do it.” PbtA and BitD naturally push in that direction. But that also means that the GM has to be ready for anything and can’t be too committed to any particular expectations.

With the game’s mechanics focused on creating “success at cost” results, the GM is constantly forced to, on the fly, come up with reasonable costs and reasonable degrees of success under the circumstances. Likewise, the importance of “positioning” within the game, somehow both a rule and a complete abstraction, gives the GM a shove into the deep end of GMing. Clocks can make for excellent pacing tools and representations of certain obstacles, but if they’re not used regularly and with consistency between uses, they serve only as a doodle representing GM fiat.

I want to be clear here: BitD doesn’t make it hard to run a game. Quite the opposite. It does, however, put a lot of extra responsibility on the GM to make the game go well, and if the GM doesn’t either have a virtuoso intuition for such things, or a good deal of experience with games that have more support for interpreting results, things can go sideways very quickly. When things go well, though, the player freedom and the pace of the narrative created by the system makes for excellent gaming.

So Many Rulings

This is, perhaps, only a specific instance of the general issue of the above, but here it is: There needs to be a discussion of what “success at a cost” means and consistency in the application of that very common result. Starting characters in BitD start with only a few dice in a smattering of skills. While there are very well-designed resources that allow characters to push past their normal limits, the resource-management of which underscores the desperate feel of the setting, the skewing of results toward success at a cost means that the GM has great power (and, thus, of course, great responsibility) for how capable the characters seem to their players. If costs for successes are relatively low, the characters feel capable, triumphing in the face of overwhelming odds. If costs are always made significant, the characters feel like imbeciles, way out of their element and having no business trying to pull heists in Doskvol. This quickly becomes frustrating to the players, and not much fun.

This is, I think where “positioning” comes in. A “properly” paced heist in BitD begins with small costs for success but allows those costs to add up over time until new and significant complications arise. Likewise, there should be an “aim small, miss small,” mentality, where cost is directly proportional to the risk of the action undertaken. The rules explain this, and do a pretty good job of doing so, but the devil is in the details, and when the GM is worried about coming up with a new cost for that unexpected action, keeping track of all this pacing, tension-building, and consistent rulings begins to feel like juggling chainsaws (at least, if you feel that your players are as volatile as chainsaws).

There are a few techniques that may help here. First, of course, is practice. Second is maintaining the “conversation” of the game with the players–it’s completely okay for there to be some back-and-forth between GM and players to establish consequences and costs of an action before the player makes the final decision to take it. This is a game about calculated risks more than overwhelming surprises; so using the “conversational” form of narrative roleplaying is, I think, exactly what is intended here. For bonus points, get the players to make suggestions about results. “I want my character to try to climb the building. I know its raining and dangerous, but the storm also masks his movements. How about a clear success is climbing without issue, the cost is knocking free a loose brick that makes the guards that much more suspicious, and failure means a fall?” If everyone is participating like this, the game becomes (a) much easier to run and (b) more interesting in the telling.

I’ll admit that, even as someone very interested in narrative style games, my background in more “traditional” GM roles sometimes makes it difficult to switch into that other style.

Seduction by Mechanics

Here’s something that hit me quite unexpectedly in playing BitD. The rules for managing your crew, its relationships, holdings, and lackeys is very cool. But there’s an issue with having mechanics for these systems that seems more defined than those for playing through character scenes: it’s easy to fall into the trap that the rules are the sum total of Crew management. Go on a heist, calculate results, make decisions according to the rules, plan next heist. That’s clearly not what’s intended; the crew rules are there to facilitate story, to bring to mind more plotlines and character arcs aside from playing heist after heist after heist. BitD should have a fair amount of Gangs of New York or Peaky Blinders in it–dealing with the shit your lackeys get into and the beef you start with rivals should form a substantial part of play of the game beyond the processes, mechanics and selections that facilitate the crew section. While BitD does have an innovative approach to running heists (or at least a very cogent and elegant iteration cobbled together from the ideas of previous games), it’s not just about the heist. This is evident in the fiction and examples interspersed with the rules, but leaving many of the details of Doskvol to mere implication may subconsciously reinforce the tendency toward a focus on heists rather than other interactions with the world. Again, added weight on the GM. Maybe not unlooked for; worldbuilding (even fleshing out the framework of a provided world) can be an extremely satisfying aspect of GMing in the first place.

Conclusion

All of this is to say that BitD is probably not the sort of game to cut your chops as a GM on. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to run the game well, it wouldn’t be at the top of my list to introduce new players with, either. Running the game well requires a working knowledge of the GM’s narrative and practical toolbox; some familiarity with story structure, tension-building and drama; good improvisational skills and adaptability; and more theorycraft of roleplaying games than most competitors require. But, for some thing, you only get what you give.

On Mapping

I have spent more time and energy on mapping tools for Avar Narn and other works of mine than I care to admit, with far less to show for it that I would like to admit, except that it might be beneficial for some of you, so here we go.

I’ve owned ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer since it was CC2, and, over the years, I’ve purchased most of the add-ons and about two thirds of the Annuals. And yet, I have only really completed about 2 maps with CC3+, and none that I’m particularly happy with. CC3+ is a beautiful program with tons of content and all sorts of features. It’s based in CAD, providing a solid drafting basis. You can search the web to find many, many, many, beautiful maps created through the ProFantasy programs.

For me, though, the learning curve is simply too high. I’ve come a long way from my early days with the program and understand how some of the features are intended to work and can be manipulated–I understand the use of sheets, how to change sheet effects on textures and objects, how to join paths and create nodes in paths, etc. None of this was learned through trial and error–I had to watch videos on YouTube, read the “Ultimate Mapping Guide” scour through posts on the various fantasy cartography sites, etc. Even with all that I’ve learned, I look at the beautiful maps others have created and then my own and wonder how many more things I have to learn and understand to make the mighty leap from where I’m at to where they are. Then, I spend hours fighting with the program and decide I’m better off hand-drawing. It doesn’t help that while I have a relatively powerful computer, I don’t have anything but the onboard graphics card, so draw times are slow and the program sometimes lags severely.

I like hand-drawn maps and I’ve probably spent the most amount of time working on various iterations of pencil/pen and paper maps. I’ve collected over the years copic markers, a Speedball quill and nibs, liquid inks, artist pencils, etc., etc. Still, most of my handdrawn maps (some of which have been on the blog) remain in relatively low-detail black-and-white. I try, over and over again, to practice top-down and isometric mountains and symbols and never end up with something that satisfies. Part of that is my setting high (read: potentially unachievable) standards for myself as a novice artist (at best), part of it is becoming relatively quickly discouraged, setting it down, and picking things up much later.

In the past six months, I’ve tried a number of additional techniques. I’ve started drawing digitally using Procreate on my iPad Pro. While I’m making some progress there, both in terms of mapping and general drawing, my dedication to learning has been much more lackluster than it should be.

As alternatives, I’ve tried some of the more recent mapmaking programs–Wonderdraft and Inkarnate. I went with Wonderdraft first, using it to create some passable maps for the Innumerable Isles fantasy piratical game I recently ran for friends. While I found the program easier to use than CC3+, I also ended up with coastlines that were much blockier than I’d have liked.

This past week, I decided to try Inkarnate. At $25 for a yearly subscription, it’s far more affordable than CC3+ and just slightly less than the one-time payment for Wonderdraft (at $29.99).

It’s also far more intuitive than any of the other programs (though some basic understanding of layers in digital art is necessary), the “textures” (which are background fill patterns, such as types of grass, lava, wasteland, desert, etc.) blend really well and have enough adjustability to provide a lot of function while remaining quite simple in application. One thing I especially love is the ability to import your own textures. I’m not skilled enough to create real patterns for mapmaking, but I can use the import feature to import a picture of one of my previous maps to shape the coastlines and place icons for a new version of that map before replacing the textures with ones actually suitable for the map. That’s how I created the updated version of the map of Altaenë in Avar Narn that is the topic photo for this post: I imported a digitally-drawn rough map (itself based on a previous pencil and paper map) to create the map above.

I’m pretty happy with that map. I’d still love to produce some digitally-drawn custom maps with blended colors, handdrawn features, etc., but for the time being, this is a map I’m happy displaying or using in some of my materials. The map itself took about three or four hours to do (at a leisurely pace), making it probably the most efficient map I’ve ever produced–certainly so in light of end result. To be fair, I had long ago placed the features and coastlines and come up with most of the names (aside from making changes to better suit Altaenin linguistics), so most of the heavy creative work for the map is not included in the creation time cited.

I’m also working on a world-scale map for Avar Narn in Inkarnate and, like my experience with the map above, I’m getting results I’m quite happy with, especially for the investment of effort. In fact, I’ve not been able to create continental-level maps I’ve been happy with in other media.

I’ve still got some of the creative brainstorming to do on finishing the farther-flung regions of Avar Narn for that map, so I’m probably going to turn to a city map next to flesh out the urban setting where several of the Avar Narn short stories (including “Blood Over Gold” posted last week) are set.

If, like me, you would like to quickly, inexpensively, and efficiently produce some maps for you RPGs or fiction writing, I highly recommend that you give Inkarnate a try. There is a free trial version and you could do a test paid subscription at $5 per month if you want to dip your toes before any greater commitment.

To be clear, I have no affiliation with Inkarnate’s creators and haven’t received anything from them (or anyone else) for writing this post. Sometimes, though, I get excited enough about a writing/creative tool (even one that you’ve probably already heard of) that I feel like its worth sharing for those who might find some use in it.

Blood Over Gold

[The short story below is the one I submitted to two magazines for potential publication earlier this week. Both responses were rejections, but not dishearteningly so. The first response was expected within 24 hours and came very quickly. The second magazine I submitted to also responded within 24 hours, despite a listed typical response time of weeks. This response included feedback–which pointed to a weakness in the story that I was aware of prior to submission–but was overall encouraging. I found this especially so because this piece wasn’t written with publication in a fiction magazine in mind; it was composed to provide a narrative look at the operation of shadowmen in the city of Iliessa in the Avar Narn setting as part of my worldbuilding and “setting bible project” on WorldAnvil.com (available here). Submitting this work for publication was more important (to me) for the act of starting the process and getting familiar with it more than publishing this particular story. Rather than rewrite this story into something it was never intended to be for additional submissions, I’ve decided to post it here for your enjoyment. I’m already working on another short story that I believe will be better suited for submission and (maybe) publication.]

Aramo grunted. Fontana pulled the tourniquet tight around his thigh. She clamped it with a rough iron clip. His nurse then grabbed the shaft of the repeater crossbow bolt lodged in the meat below the binding. The cart jumped as it hit an uneven cobblestone. The shaft shifted in Fontana’s hands, the metal tip tearing a new path in Aramo’s flesh. A wave of pain washed over him; he grumbled his responsive expletives through clenched teeth.

Fontana’s face contorted with sympathetic hurt. “Sorry!” she told him. “Try and keep her steady!” she yelled to Zerisi, their driver. Everyone’s ears rang, deafened by the musket fire Roran and Temas volleyed at their pursuers. Nellen reloaded for the two, trading spent muskets for fresh ones. Zerisi said nothing.

More repeater bolts from the pursuing House agents tinked off nearby walls on either side of the alley, careening back toward the crew at odd and harmless angles. The return fire proved just as inaccurate, filling the air with the smoke and fire of empty threats.

Their pursuers’ horses foamed at the mouth, struggling at the bit, stamping closer with the clitter-clack of horseshoes on stone.

“Piss off!” Temas yelled, the blast of his musket swallowing the words whole. He gripped the weapon too tightly, braced in expectation of receiving a biting bolt like the one that had struck his friend. He tossed the spent firearm into the cart’s bed next to Nellen; the squat man’s lips moved with unheard curses as he fumbled with the matchcord of another arquebus.

Roran threw a quick glance to Aramo’s wound, gritting his teeth as if it were his own. Anger sped the next bark of his firearm. He cursed again as he traded with Nellen, another miss only driving home the impotence he felt.

The House agents proved adept riders, managing their mounts only with their legs, their arms aiming more pointed death.

The cart took a sudden turn down a side path. The passengers shifted and swayed to one side, Roran dropping the loaded musket over the side and grasping at the railing to keep his bulky Rukhosi body from toppling headfirst after it.

As soon as they’d steadied, Fontana returned her hand to the repeater bolt, this time yanking it quickly and without hesitation. Air burst through Aramo’s lips as blood spilled from the wound, the tourniquet struggling against the flow. She pulled a small phial from her belt, using her teeth to pull the cork free of the top before spitting it over the cart’s side.

She hesitated with a grimace, knowing what came next. They’d all been in Aramo’s position at one time or another. They’d always pulled through. But that thought didn’t ease the experience of it. Roran leaned over and pushed Aramo down against the cart’s rough boards, holding him steady. Before Aramo could object, Fontana poured the contents into Aramo’s wound.

He spasmed with the pain. Nellen and Temas left their other tasks to hold him down. Every nerve in the bloody crevice flared back to life at once, sending signals through his brain that carried every excruciating detail of the flesh knitting itself back together.

The ordeal concluded, Fontana unclipped the tourniquet. “Good as new,” she said.

Aramo forced a weak smile, beads of sweat gathered at his brow and cheeks. “Do we have it?”

Nellen smiled, pulling back his cloak with thin, long Ilmarin fingers. The flash of burnished metal peeked from his satchel. “We got it,” he said, triumphant. Aramo patted him on the leg, a feeble but fatherly motion.

“That was a lot of blood back there,” Temas warned. “Will they be able to track us?”

“I threw the powder you made where I could, just like you said. Between that and the wards, we should be fine, right?” Aramo said, feigning returning strength. The firing of matchlocks had subsided, and the pursuing House agents had exhausted their ammunition as well, making conversation easier. The crew trusted Zerisi to do her job, and to do it well—they had no other choice, anyway. Her daring turns and sudden sidestreets had lengthened the gap between them and their pursuers.

“It’s worked well enough in the past,” Temas admitted. “We’ll hope it keeps up. Finding someone by sympathy isn’t an easy thing to begin with.”

The cart bumped along on the Upper City streets, between nobles’ townhouses and merchant family compounds, minor bureaucratic offices, laudatory statutes to the long dead, and all the other gaudiness enjoyed by the wealthy.

Fontana pulled a length of bandage from one of her pouches, looking to a cut on Roran’s arm. He waved her off, saying, “It’s a scratch. Don’t worry about it.” The others had been bruised and battered during their fighting escape, but Aramo had taken the worst of the injuries,. Behind them, they could no longer see the House agents or their horses.

“We’re clear,” Aramo called softly to Zerisi, who nodded without looking back. The cart’s horses slowed from the breakneck pace, still moving briskly. The cobblestones came gentler now. Not gentle, but gentler.

Adrenaline faded as the danger subsided, and irrepressible grins shone on each of the crew’s faces. It hadn’t been as clean as they’d preferred, but they’d survived. A job against House Meradhvor’s embassy in Iliessa, no less. Silent, self-congratulatory stupor set in as Zerisi directed them to a quiet courtyard between lavish estates, where an enclosed carriage, not the slapdash cart they’d arrived in, awaited them.

While Zerisi untethered the horses from the cart and transferred them to the carriage’s yokes, Roran and Temas collected jars of lamp oil they’d left behind some old shipping crates, dousing the cart with the odoriferous liquid inside. Nellen wrapped a length of matchcord around the cart’s railing, clenching a striker until the sparks lit the dangling fuse.

Zerisi turned her cloak inside out, a dark navy replacing the mottled brown on the other side. She wrapped it about herself and climbed onto the carriage’s driver’s bench. Aramo knocked on the wagon’s side when the rest of the crew had taken their seats; the driver clicked at her sweaty horses, urging them into a begrudging walk.

As the vehicle left by a side alleyway, a pillar of grey-black smoke rose behind them. From any distance, it seemed just another fireplace in a neighborhood of homes full of such comforts. Blocked by the surrounding buildings, each of them three stories tall at least, no Meradhvor agent would be alerted to the burning cart’s location.

Now came the true test. The carriage’s occupants leaned back, let the shadows of the interior corners conceal them. By now, Meradhvor had raised the hue and cry. Not only had they dispatched those agents and guardsmen they had available to scour the Upper City for fleeing bandits, but they’d no doubt recruited the watch to search out the shadowmen as well.

Tension returned to the crew as the wagon slowly made its way to one of the lifts between the Upper and Lower Cities of Iliessa. Once they’d returned from these lofty bastions, they’d have the huddling masses of the working classes to mask them, the haphazard and crowded pathways of the City Below to hide them. Until then, any wayward eye, any suspicious glance, could be enough to renew the chase. They could not afford the attire that would mark them as ones who belonged to the Upper City—Roran and Nellen would stand out as unlikely inhabitants anyway. And then there was the small matter of the sundry weapons they’d festooned themselves with: matchlock or wheelock pistols, blades of all size and manner, the occasional mace or hammer for dealing with armored House guards, grenadoes and those alchemical concoctions they could source and afford. No disguising the ill intent on them. Even in the Lower City they’d draw attention and suspicion arrayed as they were.

But their Wyrgeas proved good this night, and they made their way to the lifts without incident. Zerisi slid a swan into the liftworker’s palm, far more than the cost of the journey, and he nodded his understanding. His family would eat well that month; he’d never had a magnate of the City tip so handsomely.

The other attendants hastily hammered wedges underneath the carriage’s wheels to keep them from moving during the long descent. The initial lurch of the lift, really a short, sharp fall of a few inches, pushed the crew’s stomachs toward their throats. But the sensation subsided quickly, and the steady downward crawl of the lift became pleasant. From the carriage, Aramo examined the side of Cloudcatcher Tor as it scrolled upward, scrutinizing every patch of weathered Aenyr stone or more recent patchwork that he could before it disappeared, wondering who the now faceless figures carved into the niches and alcoves of the structure had once signified.

His fellows passed a bottle of rotgut, artificially calming their nerves. They complemented one another for their meritorious actions during the heist, when one saved the other from certain doom or another’s quick thinking prevented disaster for the lot of them. Laughing and smiles had seized them, and for this moment, nothing outside the carriage existed. You can’t stare down the cold ruthlessness of the Artificer Houses and not come to love the ones who stand with you. And this wasn’t their first job. Far from it.

Finally, the platform settled upon the Avar with a bump, like a stair met more quickly than expected. The lower lift attendants removed the wheel-blocks and Zerisi set the carriage moving without hesitation.

The crew traveled more slowly through the Lower City, both out of a sense of newfound safety and out of necessity—the alleyways of the Upper City were as broad thoroughfares in the Lower. Some of the narrower passages obliged Zerisi to stop the horses and wait for pedestrians to duck into the doorways of homes or any other alcove at hand to avoid the carriage crushing them as it passed.

The crew made their way into the heart of The Scraps and its piles of dilapidated tenement buildings, each four or five stories high, many of them leaning against one another like comrades after a night of heavy drinking, framing timbers always somehow damp. Wastewater and piss moistened the cobbles below. Shallow stone trenches had once run on either side of the street, directing such filth away from passersby’s feet, but that had been centuries past, when people of means lived in this place, waiting for the towers to be restored and the Upper City to welcome them to a grandeur separated from the rough folk below. Nightsoil had filled those drainage runs long since, and little weeds, defiant in their very existence amongst the cobbles, grew from the nutrients left behind. It reminded Zerisi of her crew: born in shit but still green with life, beautiful in an oft-ignored way.

A squat, sprawling tavern building, constructed of fieldstone rather than wood—though as poorly maintained as the rest of the neighborhood—had been erected in the ruins of several apartment buildings that burnt several decades past. The Proud Pig, refuge of the Scraps. Here, Zerisi brought the carriage to a stop.

The tavern had no stables, but neither did a stolen carriage need to be left in one place for too long. A man in a wide-brimmed hat, chair leaned back against the tavern wall in the shadow of its larger upper story, looked up from his drink to the new arrivals. He caught Aramo’s eye and ran his finger along the brim of his hat. The shadowman responded by touching a finger to his temple, not particularly returning the fence’s gaze.

The other man nodded; Aramo and his crew returned to the narrow street to make the rest of the way home on foot. The man in the hat, or his lackeys, would sell the horses, repaint the carriage, and press it into service elsewhere in the city, splitting the income from the transactions with the crew.

Avoiding any inopportune run-in with the city guard by keeping to lesser-used snickelways in the poorer districts, the crew made the long journey to their safehouse in Bywater, a brick building once used as a warehouse and nestled in the shadow of the Great Aqueduct. Only once they had crossed the threshold into that place did they truly let down their guard.

Each member of the crew first went to his or her own personal space, sorting and putting away weapons, removing pieces of concealed armor, changing into more comfortable clothes. One by one, they reconvened at the uneven wooden table where they planned their heists, shared their meals, played their games, drank and sang.

Fontana lit the planks waiting quietly in what had once been a small forge; they’d converted it into a cooktop by suspending a sheet of heavy iron over it on chains. As the flames grew, she placed a pot of water on the slab to boil, grabbing a handful of coffee beans and throwing them in a mortar. She turned to the center of the building, idly grinding the beans into powder with the pestle.

Temas carefully inspected the obfuscatory wards, the crew’s sole defense against scrying eyes. He took his time, checking for any smudge, and alterations in the carefully-painted mixture of ash and oil. Satisfied, he, too, joined the others.

Nellen pulled the Artifact from his satchel and placed it delicately in the center of the table for all to see.

A sphere, bronze in color and elaborately etched in clean, sharp lines forming unfamiliar symbols and miniature scenes that could not be deciphered at distance, rolled across the planks before settling into a gap between two of them.

“What is it?” Roran asked.

“Does it have a sympathy?” Aramo followed, pulling back the scraps of cloth that served as curtains for one of the building’s few windows and checking the street outside.

Temas stepped forward and lifted the Artifact to his face. His eyes glazed over as he invoked the Sight, searching their prize for signs of arcane tracking. After only a few seconds, he stumbled backward, Roran catching him with a powerful arm and Fontana nimbly seizing the Artifact from the air before it clattered to the dirt floor.

Shaking his head, Temas recovered his feet, bracing himself against the table’s edge. “No sympathies,” he said. “It’s not House Artifice. It’s older…Aenyr.”

Nellen stepped closer, cocking his head at an angle as he examined the sphere cupped in Fontana’s hands. “What’s it for?” he asked.

“No idea,” Temas responded, using both hands, fingers and thumbs formed into pincers, to take the object from Fontana and return it to the gap between the table’s boards so that all could see its glory. “But it’s got to be worth a fortune. Way more than we’re being paid for this job.”

“You thinking we sell it to someone else?” Zerisi asked, crossing her arms below a relaxed expression.

“Nellen, you know anyone in the Grey Markets who could find us a buyer?” Temas asked.

The short man shook a long finger at his compatriot. “What? Because I’m Ilmarin, you think I know every Grey Artificer in the city? You’re natural born; do you know every slovenly beggar in the Twists? Every whore in Gracaellas? Don’t be an asshole.”

“I just thought that, being a burglar by trade, you might know a well-connected fence,” Temas sputtered.

“Oh.”

Chuckling at the exchange, Aramo leaned forward, hands stretched across the table to his sides, resting on the edge. “We’re not selling the Artifact to someone else. We took a job and we’re going to finish it. Where’s your sense of honor? Reputation?”

Roran stepped back from the table, recoiling with a belly laugh that bared all of his teeth—but especially the dagger-like canines. Even without gear, he cut an intimidating figure, just over six feet of pure muscle wrapped in greyish flesh. “Honor? Are you kidding me? We’re shadowmen, god dammit! The whole point is that no one knows who we are. If they don’t know who we are, how can we have any reputation, much less honor?”

“We’re not common criminals,” Aramo retorted, leaning farther over the table toward Roran. “We have to have a code.”

“Fuck off with that shit, ‘Mo! We have to survive is all, maybe make enough coin to live better off than we started, not have to risk our necks day after day for our next meal. Leave the honor and the reputation to the fucking halfwit nobles who have the luxury of such airy concerns. It’s us against them, ain’t it?”

Aramo’s face hardened. “Of course you don’t understand, Rory. You’ve never known anything else. You scraped your way up through the street gangs to working for the Coin Lords. I guess there really is no honor among thieves.”

Roran smiled in retort, malice in the tips of his teeth and scorn in his lips. “You were a mercenary before you became a shadowman. You killed people for money, same as me. Don’t think we’re different, or that you’re better than me. Hypocrite.”

“I—” Aramo started, face softening from the blow. It wasn’t the first time they fought like brothers; it wouldn’t be the last.

Fontana stepped between the two men, table betwixt her and Aramo. “No single haul is worth our status as shadowmen,” she said.

“This one is,” Temas said, matter-of-factly.

“He’s right,” Nellen added, “We could all retire. I know a guy in the Markets, he could give us a better idea of exactly how much we could get.”

Temas threw his hands up and turned away from the table. “’I know a guy,’ he says,” he muttered. The Ilmarin shrugged with a sly smile and the others laughed, the tension ebbing away for a fleeting moment.

“Of course you say this haul is worth giving up our livelihood, Temas,” Zerisi returned. “You could go back to practicing thaumaturgy if you weren’t a shadowman. The rest of us don’t have that luxury.”

Temas turned back, swiftly. “You know that’s not true, Z. I can barely manage the simplest of workings. My master deemed me unworthy of even training as an aspected practitioner. I left because the other option was a lifetime of servitude to some magister somewhere. If I’d wanted to be a servant, I could have done that anywhere; I wouldn’t have ended up here. Did you think that this was a game for me? That I came to this life on a whim? We’re all here for the same reason: we don’t fit elsewhere. Maybe that choice was made for us, maybe we made it for ourselves. But we’re all in it together because we’re the same.”

“Family,” Fontana said, eyes examining her feet.

“Besides,” Aramo returned to the fray, “If we reneged on a job, the Coin Lords would have our heads. That’s how it works. You might have the money, but you wouldn’t live to spend it. Not without always looking over your shoulder, at least.”

“But they only know you,” Roran objected. “You’re the one they approved. They don’t know the rest of us and don’t want to. That’s how it works, Mo.”

Aramo took a step back from the table. “You’d do that to me?” he asked. His voice remained calm and even, as if it were the sort of question you might ask anyone under any circumstances. Even so, the sense of betrayal and desperation was palpable.

“I’m just saying, cos,” Roran returned. “We’re just talking, right? Looking at the angles.”

“Well, if we gave Aramo an extra share or two to compensate, it could work, right?” Nellen asked. “He’d have enough to set himself up somewhere in anonymous grandeur and we’d still have enough to live comfortably here. Maybe not in the Upper City, but one of the better places to live down here. And maybe the Upper City. It’s worth a lot, after all.”

“I can’t believe we’re talking about this!” Zerisi bellowed. “We’re not seriously thinking about doing this, are we?”

Temas lifted a hand to silence her. “We’re just looking at the options. Shouldn’t we at least consider the opportunities as we find them? That’s why we got into this damned business in the first place isn’t it? To seize opportunities for ourselves instead of helping some other bastard get richer than he already is?”

“I thought we joined to belong to something,” Fontana said, almost a whisper.

“Then you and Aramo can be naïve together,” Roran spat. “It’s easy to have a family and be poor; you can do it practically anywhere. But to live on your own terms, to climb out of the muck through your own sweat, blood and ingenuity, to live in wealth you earned for yourself. That is far rarer. You want my advice? Take the money and then find a family.”

“I didn’t ask,” Fontana retorted, a tear in the corner of her eye.

Roran shrugged.

Aramo sighed heavily as he returned to the table. “Do we need to take a vote?”

“No,” Fontana said, voice now firm. “There will be no vote.”

“Now wait a goddamned minute,” Roran roared amongst the general clamor in response to Fontana’s edict.

Holding up both hands like some master of ceremonies on a Gracaellas stage seeking to quell the audience, Aramo brought them back to calm. He looked to Fontana, all eyes following, and asked, “Why shouldn’t we vote, Fontana? That’s how we do things when we don’t agree.”

“I—” she began, but he could see the answer from the look on her face before she said another word. He’d seen that expression before, a face riddled with guilt enough to follow like a vengeful spirit, but powerless to stop the thing that had created it. Too many in the Lower City had been branded with that face, the broken face of a betrayer, torn between loyalty and ambition.

“You’ve already sold it,” their leader said, his voice heavy with despairing resignation.

Just then, the door and ceiling to the warehouse exploded inward sending shrapnel flying. The concussive blast deafened them all, leaving ears bleeding and ringing.

Cloaked men, hooded and armed with short blades well-suited to close quarters, descended from the hole above and the yawning gap where the door had been. The assault took only a minute, maybe less.

Roran threw the table at the assailants, knocked several of them over, attempting to shield Nellen with his body. The attackers slashed him relentlessly as he howled in pain. Temas threw himself between Zerisi and their murderers, feebly defending them both against stabbing blades with his empty hands. Aramo hobbled to his personal space to retrieve his matched wheelock pistols. He managed to fire them both, filling the room with a smoke that conspired to conceal from him the effect of his shots. He felt the firearms bark without hearing them, more noise in a world rendered silent. Except for that damn ringing.

A blade thrust into his back. More sharp stings followed. Aramo staggered. He collapsed onto the dirt floor. He could feel the warmth seeping into a puddle around his body, mingling with growing pools of his companions’ lifeblood. His mind raced through the past hours and days, searching out signs of Fontana’s betrayal that should have led him to prepare for this ambush. He could think of none; he’d loved Fontana as a daughter. It had made him blind.

Two thoughts followed: gratefulness that he’d not been able to hear or see his companions being cut down, regret that he’d escaped seeing the result of his failings.

Where he lay, slowly bleeding to death, too injured to move, he could see Fontana’s boots. His sense of hearing was returning, and he could make out some conversation, though it seemed muffled and distanced despite its proximity.

“Your reward,” a man’s voice said, followed by the clink of a bag heavy with coin dropping lightly into Fontana’s hands. “May you spend it in pleasure and health. Our House appreciates your service, and has a place for you should you wish it.”

“No. Thank you,” Fontana returned. “If it’s all the same, I’d like to be done with the whole business.”

“I understand,” the man said graciously. “Then this is where we part ways.”

The House agents retreated, undoubtedly with the Artifact, in near silence. Professionals, through and through. At least I haven’t been killed by amateurs, Aramo thought.

A moment later, Fontana had stepped back away from him enough that he could see her face. She looked at his for a moment, but when she saw him blink, she stepped back, swallowing hard, and turned away, fleeing into the night.

Aramo could hear the alarums raised by neighboring tenants, but he knew that the city’s guardsman would take their time in responding to any hue and cry in this district. That’s part of why they’d chosen a safehouse here. Safehouse, he thought. That’s a useless word. And then the darkness took him.

[A PDF copy of this story can be found on the “My Writing” page.]

A First

I’m currently thirty-seven. In my early thirties, around an impending new year, I decided that I wasn’t very interested in making New Year’s Resolutions, but that I did want to set some goals for this decade of my life. One of those was to be published by the time I’m forty. For several years after that, my progress toward the goal was lackluster, at best.

If you follow my blog, you know that I have a tendency to take on a lot of creative projects and to jump back and forth between them, so that progress is being made, but bringing anything to completion takes much longer than it would if I’d just focus on one thing at a time. To this point I’ve: written semi-regularly for the blog, worked on a number of different roleplaying projects, started a novel during NaNoWriMo that I eventually need to return to, finished the first draft of a different novel (which is posted to the blog and is currently in the early stages of significant rewrites), and started collating and expanding the setting information for my fantasy setting Avar Narn.

I’m optimistic about rewriting my novel (Things Unseen) and expect that I’ll have it in a condition I’m much prouder of once the process is complete. I also expect that to take many months at a minimum.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on some short stories set in Avar Narn. This morning, I sent one of these to a fiction magazine for consideration. Other than a short short story contest I entered I few years back, this is the first piece of my fiction that I’ve submitted for professional publication.

As such, I’m realistic about the likelihood of publishing this story: it’s very low–especially on its first submission to the first magazine I’ve decided to attempt. Nevertheless, the step feels like a significant one in actually making progress towards the goals I’ve set for myself. At the very least, I’m trying instead of only dreaming! I’m currently working on a second short story–this one involving the main character of Things Unseen, and I’m excited about its prospects as well.

For everyone, it’s been a rough year, and I’m right there with you. As a small business owner, I continue to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the economy and my fate therein. Last week’s Texas winter debacle has only deepened my weariness for these times–and, whether or not you live in Texas, I know many of you are right there with me.

So, for me, this endeavor, this step forward toward achieving the goals about which I am most passionate, is a much-needed respite from the world-weariness we’re all constantly fighting against–however brief that respite may be. The fiction publishing market is a brutal one, and my eyes are wide open. But at least I’m officially on a path now that will take me away from the question “What if?”

More to come, and soon.

Well…That Didn’t Work

My Patreon launch was a bust, which I knew was a distinct possibility. Strangely, I’ve not really taken this as a significant blow like I thought I might. In fact, I wonder how much of a setback it really is. Yes, it would have been nice to have some supporters who chipped in a little monetary symbol of their enthusiasm for my work, but maybe I’m just not there yet. I’m okay with that.

They say that money ruins everything (at least I often do!), and we live in times that are economically difficult for many of us, so it’s completely understandable that people may want to contribute but just not be able to justify even small amounts of extraneous spending in their budget right now. Certainly, I experienced a good deal of moral support and interest in the idea–this didn’t manifest into patrons on Patreon, but I’m more interested in the support for the writing than the patronage. And, there’s something to be said for retaining freedom in creation that isn’t beholden to anyone.

I never expected to generate much income from the Patreon page, and not having picked up any patrons over the first few days had me thinking about what I really want from other people with regards to my writing. I came to the following conclusions:

(1) I’m going to be writing this stuff regardless, and I can develop the discipline to do so more regularly without needing deadlines to other people to do it.
(2) I am more interested in developing a community of people who are interested in, moved by, and want to engage with my worldbuilding and writing than I am about making money off of it. Put a different way, I want my writing to matter more than I want it to make money.
(3) It’s very possible that I simply haven’t put out enough content yet to give people enough information about whether they’re ready to “invest” in more.
(4) I’m by nature not a marketing person, and I don’t generally like asking people for money, so when I kept getting notices from Patreon about things I could do to try to get patrons, my first thought was, “I’d rather spend the time writing than selling myself.” That’s certainly counter to the mainstream advice for creatives making their living off of the democratization of the internet, but it’s also who I am.

So, with all of that in mind, I’ve decided to do things differently. I’m going to continue to meet my espoused worldbuilding and writing goals that I’d developed for the Patreon launch, but I’m going to do it without the Patreon angle. To that end, the Avar Narn material on WorldAnvil has been made public for everyone. You can find the world by going to https://www.worldanvil.com/w/avar-narn-jmflint. You may need to set up an account with WorldAnvil for access.

Once there, you’ll be able to click on a button to join the Discord server for discussion and community-building around the setting.

With money out of the way, I hope you’ll join me as I continue to develop the world and write stories within it!

And it Begins (Patreon Now Live!)

Giddy with anticipation, coffee and anxiety, I have now officially launched my Patreon!

Membership is $5 per month. By becoming a Patron, you will have immediate access to:

(1) About 33,000 words of background material on Avar Narn, arranged in World Anvil for easy perusal;
(2) A new short story exclusive to Patrons (called “Family”);
(3) A (rough) revised map of the Altaenin islands;
(4) Access to an exclusive Discord channel to ask questions, share your thoughts and feedback, and let me know what you want to see next.

A minimum of 10,000 words of additional history and lore will be added this month; I’ll be diligently working to expand the RPG rules information available and to provide access to more fiction over the course of the month as well.

You can check out the Patreon page at: https://www.patreon.com/AvarNarn.

If you’re not sure if Avar Narn is a setting you’ll enjoy, try some of the short stories, the rough first draft chapters of Things Unseen (both available in the My Writing section of the blog) or some of the introductory posts on the blog with information.

More Patreon Info

I am both excited about and dreading the launch of my Patreon with the start of the new year. Excited, of course, because it may provide both an impetus for me to really up my writing productivity and may create a community of support around Avar Narn that would be motivating in so many different ways. Dreading, because there’s every potential that the launch will garner no patrons and I’ll have to overcome that setback to morale to advance my writing endeavors (a task I think I’m up to).

Already, though, the Patreon plan has me tingling in anticipating, a restlessness that has turned to some productivity. I had in my last post mentioned my desire to have at least 30,000 words of background material waiting for patrons at launch. I’m over 32,000 words uploaded to WorldAnvil. Even that doesn’t cover the core elements of the world in terms of geography, history, religion, etc. What has been put in words so far seems just an amuse bouche, still needing lots of fleshing out. This, itself is daunting and exhilarating.

The only thing I’d mentioned having ready for launch that isn’t ready yet is a map of Altaene, which I need to finish by the end of the year. I’m now hoping to add to the launch matter a new short story (currently in planning) and some additional background and roleplaying material (the core mechanics have been included on WorldAnvil, with some additional bits close to being solidified and my initial notes on the combat system and encumbrance systems starting to come together).

Armed with an iPad Pro and and Apple Pencil, I’ve collected some books and courses on drawing and digital painting. I’m a beginner to both, at best, but I’m hoping to learn enough to provide at least some interim and passible art to get some ideas across. Devoting time to this course of study has become part of my general Patreon plan.

In terms of the launch itself, only one thing remains to be done–I need a picture for the Patreon page itself. For now, I think, I’ll create a very simple logo as a place holder, to be improved and enhanced at a later date. We’ll start humble and work our way up!

I’m very much looking forward to having some fresh perspectives on the setting as I continue to expand it, to sharing its depth and breadth with new people. I hope you’ll join me!

Patreon Planning Update

As I continue to plan for a launch of my Patreon at the beginning of the new year, I want to keep you apprised of the details so that you can determine whether this is something you will be interested in. A few changes or additions to the plans in previous posts:

(1) I intend to have only one Patron level instead of three to simplify delivery of “the goods.” This level will be $5 per month; I’m anticipating a $50 per year alternative if you’re the kind of daring soul willing to take a risk up front.
(2) I am establishing an account on WorldAnvil, which will be used to organize content for your reading pleasure. It’s my understanding that access to WorldAnvil can be synched with Patreon, providing some nice compatibility on that front.
(3) I have been working to write, compile, revise and codify existing worldbuilding material for Avar Narn, with the intent of having a ready reserve of material to post to hit promised monthly quotas. However, I’ve decided it’s better on all fronts for me to open with as much material as I can muster by the end of this year and to devote myself to new material when the first month begins. This way, you’ll have some background on the world to explore from the second your Patreon becomes active. Some of this will be rough works in progress (particularly the long history of the world), but some will also be focused write-ups on particular topics of importance to the setting. I believe that I currently have somewhere around 25,000 words of material to begin from, and will be working as furiously as I’m able over the course of this month to increase that number as much as possible for launch. I’m also working to have a new map of Altaene (the islands that are home to the “Seven Sisters” cities and the setting of Things Unseen) by launch.
(4) 10,000 words of new setting material (or equivalents in maps and visual design work) will be the bare minimum I strive to deliver each month. Additional features beyond that amount will include: new short stories, early access to revisions of the Things Unseen novel in progress, development toward a complete roleplaying game using my own developed system–Patrons will be encouraged to playtest and provide feedback once the ruleset becomes workable, and behind-the-scenes commentary on my work progress and methods. It is my intent for the Patreon to provide broad access to the world of Avar Narn, however you want to interface with it–whether that is enjoying fiction, becoming immersed in the lore and history of the world, or leading and taking part in your own adventures within the setting.
(5) It is my intent to pour all proceeds from Patreon back into the setting itself. Funds will pay for maintenance of the hosting and other costs of online material, the purchase of books and tools to enable me to better expand the materials available for you and, if possible, the commissioning of third-parties for high-quality artwork, maps, and layout/design for the compilation of materials into books and other media.
(6) As previously mentioned, I will also be establishing a Discord for Patrons to dialogue with me and others, pose questions about the setting and generally engage in a developing community around Avar Narn.

More to come soon!