RPG Design Journal #1: Choosing a Core Mechanic for Avar Narn RPG

Reader beware: this post is as much me working through design ideas as it is describing design choices. If that’s not interesting to you, but RPGs are, just wait until I’ve posted something more concrete about the Avar Narn RPG’s systems.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started work on an RPG ruleset for Avar Narn and then stopped.

Here’s a list of rulesets I’ve used to run games in the Avar Narn setting over the years (as the setting has developed and grown): The Riddle of Steel, D&D, Fate, Cortex Plus, various custom systems.

And here’s a list of systems I find (to varying degrees) influential on my own design approaches: Shadowrun, World of Darkness (particularly nWoD Mage: The Awakening), Dogs in the Vineyard, Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime, TRoS, Warhammer Fantasy, Apocalypse World, Barbarians of Lemuria, Artesia: Adventures in the Known World, Shadows of Esteren, The One Ring, Stoltze’s One-Roll Engine (and particularly Reign), John Wick (especially Houses of the Blooded), Blades in the Dark, Fantasy Dice, GUMSHOE, FFGs system for Star Wars and WFRP3e, Burning Wheel and Torchbearer. Yes, that’s a lot of varied designs with some ideas that are incompatible with others.

Having mostly cut my teeth on dice pool systems, that’s my typical starting place. I’ve read a fair bit on game design and, this time I’ve decided to start at the very beginning, without preference for a core mechanic. Here are some links to give you some background on things I’ve been thinking about as I do this:

“How Do I Choose My Dice Mechanic”
“All RPGs Are FUDGE” (while I see a little more significance to the variation between systems than this author, the point that statistical variations in the most-frequently-employed core mechanics are not as significant as we might think seems pretty sound)
“Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games”
The Kobold Series on Game Design
Robin Law’s Hamlet’s Hit Points and John Wick’s Play Dirty (although these are more about running games than designing them)

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to analyze the statistical differences between core mechanics (though math is not my strong suit, and particularly when it comes to complex probability equations) only to come down with a bad case of analysis paralysis.

Here’s what my recent reading (and experience) has led me to conclude:

(1) When the rules serve their purpose well, it’s the story that gets remembered, not the results of dice throws.
(2) The actual statistics of a core mechanic are less important than the way we perceive them–the way (our view of) the dice mechanic reinforces (or undercuts) the feel of the game and setting is what matters.
(3) The most interesting thing about a core mechanic is how it can be manipulated with interesting rules that are intuitive and yet reinforce setting ideas. Thus, a core mechanic should be selected more with an eye to what it can do for subsystems and design goals than its own merit.

Here are some of my analytical conclusions so far:

(1) Efficiency is paramount. The more you can resolve with a single die roll the better. Dice pools are often faster in use than roll and add/subtract systems because counting successes is easier than addition. Is it easier enough to force a design change? No.

(2) Inspired by the FFG custom-dice game: if a single roll can give you both the main pass/fail and degree of success information and give you cues for scene complications or opportunities, so much the better. The One-Roll Engine is also good at this. Additionally, checking the dice for multiple conditions should be simplified as much as possible so that this feature does not carry with it too hard a hit on efficiency.

(3) For a gritty setting like Avar Narn, a bell-curve or Gaussian distribution makes sense for three reasons: (a) extreme results are made more rare for a more “realistic” feel, (b) character stats are more significant in a bell-curve distribution than a linear distribution, and (c) along with (a), these distributions give more predictability to players as to results, which is important in a game where consequences of actions (including but not limited to lethality) are severe. The binomial distribution of dice-pool systems aren’t so far off as to be ruled out by this, but do not fit as well as a multiple-dice roll-and-add system.

(4) Along with a bell-curve or similar statistical distribution, the “bounded accuracy” of the latest iteration of D&D helps create expectations reliable enough for players to reasonably predict the results of courses of action.

(5) Combat requires a delicate balance–it must be fast, but it must also grant enough tactical depth to be interesting for its own sake. Additionally, it must be intuitive enough that advanced lessons in martial arts are not necessary to use the system to its fullest. One of the ways to make combat quick is to make it deadly, but combat that is too deadly is not fun for players. This is exacerbated if (1) the game intends deep and serious character development, (2) the “adventuring pace” means that injured characters must take a back seat for an extended period, or (3) character creation is time-consuming and/or complex. I’ve got a number of ideas for streamlining combat, but that’s for another time.

(6) Rules principles that can be applied to many different scenarios are far better than complex rulesets. Fate and Cortex are the best at this, in my opinion.

So what does all of this mean for Avar Narn RPG? Despite my love for dice-pool systems, I’ve currently leaning toward a 3d6 system, or perhaps even the use of Fudge/Fate dice. The 3d6 is more accessible for newbies into RPGs, but it’s probably more realistic to expect this to be a niche game. And, to be honest, I’d rather have a dedicated group that loves the system and setting than having to try to cater to a large base with very diverse expectations–especially for a first “published” (read: publicly available) system.

My apologies if you were expecting a solid answer on the core mechanic in this post! Right now, my action items in making a final decision are as follows: (1) determine the subsystems the game will need/benefit from, (2) play around with manipulation rules for various core mechanics, (3) find the core mechanic that checks off the most boxes.

Thoughts from those of you who have tried your hand at RPG design?

Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, First Edition, was the first fantasy roleplaying game I ever owned. It was the early nineties, and like all good Christian parents, mine denied me access to Dungeons & Dragons, fallout and carry over from the demonic-worship craze of the late eighties. As we all know, but I didn’t question as a child, there was nothing inherently demonic or evil in D&D (the opposite mostly, though one of Tom Hanks’ early films told a different story). But, not knowing better, they allowed me this gem of a game, darker, grittier, and far less wholesome than the high-fantasy cheese of AD&D.

Ownership of this vaunted tome (which I lost or gave away or sold somewhere along the way, much to my present chagrin) had a very formative effect on me. It solidified my love of roleplaying games, proved the gateway into my miniature gaming hobby, and gave me my first real taste of dark fantasy (a penchant I cannot shake even now). As someone, even in elementary school, deeply interested in medieval and early modern history and wanting some semblance of verisimilitude in my roleplay, it’s little wonder that WFRP, warts and all–no, warts especially–has a special place in my heart. Before high school, I’d also purchased several of the Rolemaster FRP books so, though I didn’t know it, 80’s “realism” in RPGs became my foundation.

I never ran or played a game of First Edition WFRP, though I did manage to collect most of the books at one point or another. When Second Edition was released (I was now in college), I scrupulously and slavishly purchased each of the books as it was released and ran a few games with those rules (though I admittedly used the Riddle of Steel rules, released close in proximity, for those Warhammer Fantasy-based games I most enjoyed). My miniature gaming had focused mostly on 40K, but something about the Tolkien pastiche smashed up with a more historically-influenced setting always called me back to WFRP in my gaming (of course, the first edition of Dark Heresy had not yet been hinted at even–though that’s a story for when I review Wrath & Glory, I suppose).

Likewise, when FFG published the third edition of WFRP, I couldn’t help but go all in on that system as well. For all of the quirks and fiddly-bits of the 3rd edition (much of which I found very innovative and fascinating from a design standpoint), I ran some of the most narratively deep scenes based on those strange custom dice. The board-game like pieces really did provide some opportunities for building unique subsystems to support the story, from chases to countdown clocks. The “stances” adapted just enough from Riddle of Steel (which remains one of my favorites for three reasons: (1) at the time of its release, I was a study group leader for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and deeply invested in the study of real swordplay; (2) the writer of TRoS was also a member of ARMA, one with whom I’d had the fortune to spar with; (3) there are design ideas, like spiritual attributes, that I still find amazing, even if I now find the combat system too intricate for my gaming needs and desires) to sate my desired treatment of combat at the time.

I don’t want to participate in “you-should-have-been-there”-ism too much, but I will relate one fascinating development in one of the WFRP games I ran. When the PCs stumbled across some warpstone, one of the characters decided to squirrel some away to sell later. As it tends to do, the warpstone started to have an effect on this character, and a fellow PC (a staunch and suspicious Kislevite), discovered this. While the first character slept soundly, the Kislevite snuck up on him and, pressing the barrel of a pistol to the first character, ended the foolish threat to the party. What surprised and pleased me was the response of the murdered character’s player: “Yeah, that’s what you should of done. That was not going to go well.” That’s mature roleplaying from dedicated players. Drama!

I should also note that, perhaps the result of my fumbling with Rolemaster, I’ve never been a huge fan of d100/Percentile RPG systems. I fully admit that this is a personal thing and not some objective complaint about that style of system itself (my preference, almost certainly a side-effect of my playing White Wolf games, Shadowrun and TRoS, is for dice pool systems).

When I heard that Cubicle 7 had the contract for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition, two things excited me: first, I’ve found the One Ring to be both the most faithful RPG version of Tolkien’s world yet and mechanically innovative to boot; and, second, I’d hoped that the new ruleset would veer away from the d100 system used in the past (as Wrath & Glory has done). One of those things proved true.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give WFRP4 is that it’s a percentile system I’d actually consider running. Even with my preference for the Fate or Cortex Plus/Prime systems, this ruleset reinforces the grittiness and darkness of the setting in what I feel merits the additional crunch. Reading the rulebook has also reminded me that, second only perhaps to D&D/OSR rules, how much material there is out there that could be easily adapted for subsystems or alternative/house rules for WFRP4. I’ve found myself very interested in some of the things that the Mythras system has done with d100, and then there’s all of the Chaosium, Runequest, Zweihander (particularly appropriate) and Rolemaster stuff out there as well.

My personal confession to the versatility and playability of percentile RPGs is not the point of this post, however. Let me instead focus on the (many) things that I really enjoyed about this system, especially as an iteration of the first and second editions (which I’ll assume you’re familiar with).

First, the art is beautiful. Andy Hepworth and Jon Hodgson, who worked on The One Ring illustrations also worked on this tome, and the artwork is similar to that of TOR: watercolory, somber and evocative of the setting’s tone. As I said in my Witcher RPG review, the artwork itself is almost worth the price of admission–but I’m a very visual person.

Additionally, in the style you’ll remember from the FFG version of the game, much of the setting information is given in-character through letters and reports. The beginning of the book combines pictures with a skillful economy of words to highlight the Empire, giving just enough detail for even a newbie to the setting to run a session that a seasoned veteran would say, “Yep, that feels like Warhammer.” I just love this.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself, though. I really should have led with the thing that I love most about WFPR4–its transparency that the players and GM should make the setting their own personal version of the Warhammer Fantasy world, supplemented with reminders about this throughout the text on the subjects of both mechanics and setting, and supported by optional rules and reminders that rules that don’t fit your game should be ignored or changed.

Let’s talk about some of the changes to the previous incarnations (of course skipping the outlier that was 3rd Edition). Fourth Edition has “softened” character generation and brought it into the world of “modern” gaming. Where the early editions of the game relied entirely on random generation of player characters (yeah, everyone wants to be a Ratcatcher, but no one wants to play the poxy doxy), the latest edition has kept the random generation tables but has given rewards to sticking to them rather than making them mandatory. For instance, for your starting career, you first roll one result. If you take that result, you get a substantial XP bonus you can either hoard or spend on starting upgrades to your character. Didn’t like that result? You roll two more, and if you pick one of the three, you still get an XP bonus (though not as substantial as when you only had the one option). Don’t like any of the three results? Just choose what you want to play. No XP bonus, sure, but at least you’re playing something you find interesting. This goes for most aspects of character generation.

Above, I mentioned the Spiritual Attributes of The Riddle of Steel RPG. While WFRP4 doesn’t use those per se, it does join the forefront of modern player-driven (narrative) gaming by giving both the individual players and the group as a whole ambitions. Ambitions are short- and long-term goals that, when completed, grant XP for character improvement (in addition to the normal XP of session survival and accomplishment). Like 13th Age’s “One Unique Thing” or Milestones in Fate, they give the GM some guidance on what players are interested in dealing with in the narrative of their game.

As well, ambitions are a call-to-action for players to learn about the game world (so that they can craft good ambitions) and help define those elusive both most-important aspects of character–character itself (as in the inner life, personality, beliefs and psychology of a fictional entity beyond the mechanical numbers on the page).

My other favorite new thing in Fourth Edition? The “Between Adventures” chapter. These optional rules recall the “township events” of Warhammer Quest (God that we would get an updated version closer to the original instead of the bastard “End Times” game that was produced–oops, my rabid fanboy is showing). I spent a good deal of my youth (when I was but had not realized that I was an introvert) playing that game. In WFRP4, the Between Adventures chapter gives the players interesting complications that might arise while not in the wilderness fighting orcs or Chaos as well as endeavors that might be undertaken to gain small–but perhaps lifesaving–advantages during the next adventure. It’s a clever way to provide for some roleplaying opportunity and character development without having to devote large amounts of playtime to characterization–though if that’s what your group wants, there’s no reason you can’t do that, either!

Much of the rest of the rules will prove familiar to the player of the first or second editions–nasty critical hits, rules for corruption and disease, limited magic, careers that range from the extraordinary to the ultra-mundane (if historically accurate), Skills and Talents, etc.

Petty magic is back for those who missed it (I did). Each Career now has four tiers of advancement, so the Apprentice Apothecary and the Master Apothecary are within the same write-up instead of spread across four different careers that represent incremental steps in the same line of work and training. Character social status (as within the Bronze, Silver and Gold tiers of society) is more explicitly treated and made relevant to gameplay. Task difficulty has been more effectively balanced (Very easy tasks are now +60 to Attribute+Skill Ranks) given the relatively low attribute and skill values of starting characters. Advancement, XP and skill ranks have been streamlined in a way I find to be an improvement.

First and second edition adventure material should require little or no adaptation to be usable, and previous mechanics or careers will be relatively easy to adapt.

In short (though perhaps it’s too late for that), if you liked the first and second editions of WFRP, you’re very likely to enjoy Cubicle 7’s take. If you didn’t, I’d take a look anyway.

The main competitor for WFRP4, I think, is the indy-game Zweihander (itself an iteration of WFRP2), though Shadow of the Demon Lord may be a better fit for those who want a game closer to classic D&D but heavily influenced by modern gaming mechanics and the approach and feel of Warhammer (the creator, Robert J. Schwalb, worked on WFPR2 among other things).

The release of the book has very much tempted me to return to the Empire circa 2511. If I do, I’ll probably even use this ruleset rather than trying to adapt to a more narrative-focused system, as WFRP4 seems a decent compromise between massive crunch (which I ideologically though not practically miss) and the narrative-focused games to which I’ve become more focused.

Have you had a chance to read through the book? What did you think?

Stealing History (for your stories)

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of history. Do you know what I’m an even bigger fan of? Good stories.

Yes, at its best, history is a collection of “good” (narratively speaking, not factually or morally speaking, necessarily) stories. There are heroes and villians, drama and plot twists, the exciting and unexpected. The academic historical approach concerns itself not with the strength of the narrative, necessarily, but with the determination of questions like: “What was life like back then?” “Why did X event happen the way it did, or at all?” “What might patterns in history tell us about the future of humanity?” and, perhaps the biggest bugbear of all, “What actually happened?”

These are great questions, and an understanding of historiography is a significant boon to the worldbuilder in her craft. At times, the truth is even stranger than fiction–what delight when we stumble upon such usurpations of our expectations!

But let us set both historian and worldbuilder aside for this post, shall we? What I’m interested in, here, are stories. Stories that come from history, yes, but which are not beholden to the determination of historical fact. Let us talk of the writer’s craft, of the art of good storytelling, and that ephemeral search for inspiration.

Some of the most enduring fiction takes the seeds of history–even if only for context–and waters them to blossom into something apart from, and often more existentially significant, than the history that spawned it.

Some examples:

One: The legends of King Arthur, placed as it is within an array of historical contexts (often not far removed from the storyteller’s own anachronistic understanding of history), but always concerned with issues of Englishness (perhaps it’s more fair to say “Britoness”), chivalry and good rulership. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Sir Thomas Mallory (or T.H. White and Disney, for that matter), the story has morphed and grown as a contemplation of these ideas quite apart from any historical basis.

Having studied at the British Library and the National Archives as part of my senior honors thesis on “Henry VIII’s Use of Arthurian Legend as Tudor Propaganda,” I can say with some confidence that there never was a King Arthur (though there was a Prince Arthur–Henry VIII’s older brother who died young), but I can also say definitively that that doesn’t really matter to the value the King Arthur story has even in the modern age.

Two: The early tales of Robin Hood lack the moral fortitude or noble birth of the hero, having more in common with medieval tales of Reynard the Fox than the Disney fox. At least as of current scholarship, the likeliest origin of the Robin Hood tales is with a supporter of the Lancastrian uprising around Nottingham in the 1320’s (see the excellent “Our Fake History” Podcast for details in two forty-five-minute sessions). But origins mired in 14th-Century factional strife and medieval vendetta rather than a “rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor” morality seem not to have stopped stories about “Robin of Locksley” (previously Robert, Earl of Huntington) from carrying the imagination from the late middle ages to the very modern (cue Bryan Adams, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Mel Brooks). The history of Robin Hood tales also demonstrates that the stories took on a life of their own completely independent from any historical basis–and perhaps rightly so, because these stories tell us something about popular ideas of morality versus the law, bad rulership and justice undone. They’re stories about a certain view of the world.

Three: Romeo & Juliet. While I’m particularly a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film, this story originates with a very real set of historical events–a much surer foundation than either Arthur or Robin Hood–but stands wholly apart from those events.

You see, the original author of the story, Luigi da Porto, was the nephew of Antonio Savorgnan, the leader of the Zambarlani faction in Venetian-controlled Friuli in the early 16th-Century. Da Porto was also a student of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. On Fat Thursday in 1511 began the “Cruel Carnivale” in the city of Udine, the culmination of long vendetta between the Zambarlani, formed of Savorgnan, his peasant militias and the artisans and poor folk (mostly loyal to Venice) on the one side and the Strumieri, composed of the rural nobility and their retainers (mostly loyal to the Austrians and the Holy Roman Emperor) on the other. A large number of Strumieri nobles were murdered during Carnivale, some of the rural castles sacked and burnt, many others driven to flee for their lives.

But on that Fat Thursday, just as the violence and chaos was ramping up, da Porto had the good fortune to see the beauty Lucina Savorgnan (Antonio Savorgnan’s second cousin) sing at a party that evening. As the story goes, he fell in love with her (though she married another and I’m not sure whether the love was ever requited). This experience, set against the backdrop of dueling factions (quite literally) in northern Italy, caused him to write the original Romeo & Juliet  that provided the basis for Shakespeare’s enduring tale.

Yes, da Porto’s story takes some liberties, transferring the scene to Verona and putting the lovers in opposing factions rather than on the same side. But the context of the story–exile as a common form of punishment, lasting feuds that contiunously claimed the lives of family members and retainers, violence and unrest in the streets that the government could not contain–all of this comes from a discrete historical time and place, and the direct experience of the author.

So where am I going with these examples?

For the writer, who isn’t particularly bound by what “actually happened,” history provides a veritable treasure trove of ideas to develop into plots, settings and stories.

In writing the Game of Thrones series, G.R.R. Martin drew heavily upon–but did not allow himself to be bound by–the history of the Wars of the Roses.

The writers of the TV series Black Sails pulled not just from Treasure Island (itself borrowing heavily from the fictitious Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates) but from the most recent scholarship on early modern piracy to tell its tales convincingly, using many historical persons but taking plenty of liberties with them.

Tolkien borrowed more heavily on the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Nordic-Germanic peoples of Europe than their histories in creating Middle Earth (taking even the very name from Viking mythology), but none of that literature is divorced from its own historical context.

The History Channel has been recently making its money off of historical fiction (and reality TV) rather than “serious” history, and on the far-more-humorous end is Comedy Central’s Drunk History and its inebriated retellings of historical events renacted by well-known actors.

The writer can rip from history the juiciest bits without being encumbered by historicity or the concerns of historiography. Reading, listening to or otherwise devouring history will provide a steady diet of interesting plots and “what if” prompts that need not be detectably related to the events that created them. In that sense, the histories devoured don’t even have to be very good (academically speaking) histories–we’re not concerned with the truth of the situation here.

And that opens up to us a second realm for our burglary–mythologies and superstitions. Having recently binged the entire series of the Lore podcast (well worth the time), I cannot number the story ideas that came to me during my listening, many of which are so easily adapted to my own Avar Narn as to surprise even the skeptic within me.

It doesn’t matter whether the Thunderbird is real or what people who claim to have seen the Mothman of Point Pleasant actually saw–the story is what matters! A few tweaks and twists, your own personal touch a different setting and off you go.

If you haven’t bought into the idea that all great artists steal ideas wherever they can, think about this: only God creates ex nihilo; we humans create new things by combining old things in new ways. Lean into it.

And here is one place where I can rejoice in, rather than lament, the almost complete lack of historical literacy of the average modern person–most people are not going to have any idea who Shackleton was or what happened to the Mary Celeste (even in the general sense since, as far as I can tell nobody knows what happened to the Mary Celeste). So when you take such a cosmic egg and hatch your own original story from it, who will be the wiser? Even better, those who do see the influence will feel so smart about recognizing it that they’ll like the story more not less. I speak from arrogant experience. Ask K.

In other words, for the fiction writer especially, there is much to gain and little to lose by raiding history for its secret stories and unpolished gems of ideas. Grab your whip and your fedora (but forget to say, “It belongs in a museum!”) and get searching!

To get you started, a few of my favorite historical podcasts, all of which have been mentioned above or elsewhere on the blog:

(1) Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. To me, this is the end-all-be-all of historical podcasts, Well researched, inimitably told and stretching through multiple three-plus hour sessions per topic, my only complaint about Mr. Carlin’s work is that there isn’t more of it (which, given the investment of time and effort into what he does put out is entirely understandable). The best aspect of Hardcore History? Mr. Carlin’s ability to imaginatively communicate the idea of being there.

(2) Lore by Aaron Mahnke. Mr. Mahnke tells stories of myth and superstition in a captivating way, leaving any judgment of the reality of the events retold open to the listener. When the truth just doesn’t matter and the topics range from the spooky to the outright bizarre, you have a veritable gold mine for fiction writers.

(3) Our Fake History by Sebastian Major. In a voice that sometimes  reminds me of Mr. Carlin above, Mr. Major dispels common (and not-so-common) (mis-)conceptions in history “to figure out what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what is such a good story it simply must be told.” That last part is the undeniable bread-and-butter of the writer, so need I say more?

Wilda

For a PDF version of this short story, click here: JM Flint – Avar Narn – Wilda.

Knox pushed the door behind him closed with his foot, his arms too full of preparatory knickknacks and gewgaws to allow the use of his hands. The latch to his humble apartment clicked in obeisance. Slowly, carefully, he let his acquisitions splay gently across the wooden floor, a clickerclack accompanying their dispersal. He turned back to the door, opened it, stuck his head out, peered in both directions of the street below, retreated, threw the bolt, and turned to close the shutters on the windows.

“Damn,” he said to himself as darkness engulfed the room. He pushed the nearest set of shutters back open just long enough to retrieve an old candle from the rickety nightstand near his straw-filled bed, the vermin within it scattering quickly as darkness fled from returning light. For a moment, his eyes lingered on the bed, the one they’d shared. It seemed to him that the bugs that made their home in his rough mattress had only come once she had gone, but he knew this to be untrue. He could remember their shared complaints come morning.

The candle lit, Knox again closed the last of the shutters, the darkness of the single room now pierced by faint, flickering glow, the candle defiant in its radiance. He had just enough illumination to find the other half-spent candles and to light them, leaving their new cousins arrayed on the floor where they had come to rest.

Satisfied with the room’s glow, Knox removed his work clothes: the worn leather belt that held his coin purse (now empty), the robe that marked him as a freelance thaumaturge, the heavy boots still caked with the dust of Asterfaen’s back streets and alleyways, the wooden rings enchanted to glitter as silver and gold in a display of his worldly success. Down to his shirt and small clothes, he folded his removed belongings and placed them on the room’s single table, pushed up against the far wall away enough from the bed to discourage the fleas from infesting his daily attire.

He moved again to the shutters, double-checking that he had latched and secured each of them, squinting to peer downward through the slats at the streets below. Finding nothing particularly suspicious—at least as far as he could see—he now turned himself to the work at hand.

Kneeling, he swept the scattered items into a small pile in the center of the room. From a roughspun satchel he retrieved a small carving knife. This he carried first to the wall to the left of the apartment’s door, selecting a spot between the shuttered windows. He drew the knife lightly over the plaster on the wall, careful to make only a faint outline of a design without punching into the wattle below. He bit his lip, holding the knife by its blade for extra dexterity, as he sketched out the design: an intricate geometry of shapes and stray lines, runic symbols punctuating the empty space between. When he had traced the last angle, he stepped back from the wall, fetched a candle and returned to examine his work in detail. Satisfied, he returned the candle and brought blade to plaster once again, this time deepening the design, but still cautious with the drawing’s depth.

The sigil complete, Knox pressed his hand up against it, furrowing his brow in concentration as he softly but speedily recited an incantation, summoning the Power and drawing it into the arcane geometries of the design he had carved. A working of obfuscation and occultation, a shield for his work against the prying eyes of the Vigil. Damn them and their overzealous monopoly on the determination of permissible and impermissible workings. The thought nearly broke his concentration, but he caught himself and focused on the incantation, the formalization of his will. He spoke the final words and reached out his arcane senses to ensure that the sigil now contained the product of his work. It did.

He now repeated the process on the opposite wall. Midway through his etching, there came a knock at his door. Briefly startled, Knox collected himself with a curse, and glanced about the room. Plaster dust had collected on the floor beneath his sigils. The use of candlelight in the daytime looked suspicious at best. But there was nothing for it; he had no time to tidy up before answering the knock.

Knox unbolted the door and swung it open just wide enough to stick his face through the gap. He squinted at the profundity of the daylight, taking a moment before the face of his neighbor Beatrice came into focus. A pretty woman—or she had been before years of hard living had taken their toll—Knox remembered that she plied her own trade during the night. He had even considered visiting her himself after Wilda had gone, but his sense of loyalty prevented him.

“How do you think I’m supposed’a sleep with you scratchin’ at me walls like some monster in the night? You gonna take care a’ me if I can’t work tonight? Got some spare cuts to pay my time?”

“Well, no—” Knox began before she cut him off with the wave of her hand, sweeping her long blonde hair from her neck to her back, as if removing an obstacle to her impending assault.

“An’ another thing, why’s it so dark in there? And why aintcha workin’ today?”

Knox scrunched his face in a sudden bout of frustration and disgust. Disgust for her incessant and childish questions. Disgust for her profession. Disgust for his own attraction to her. Without even thinking about it, his left hand began to twitch behind his back, forming shifting shapes as an aid to his thaumaturgy.

He looked Beatrice straight in her doe-like eyes, green as summer ponds filled with algae and fallen moss. “You are interfering with my work, girl,” he spat, malevolence filling his speech. “I have no time for the likes of foolish whores too stupid to understand the vagaries of thaumaturgy. Who are you to question me, one who has studied at the universities, has touched secrets you shall never comprehend, has power at his beck and call the likes of which you cannot imagine?”

She stepped away from him on instinct, her back to the rail of the third-story balcony that connected the apartments. But her resolve returned quickly, joined by a fire Knox had not expected. His working had failed—he had been too subtle with it—and only his words had frightened her. Damn, he thought to himself.

“Who are you to speak to me that way? Aye, you may’ve been to a university, but you failed there, dincha? You’re a common street thaumaturge, no magus, and not even a good one at that. You wouldn’t be living next to honest whores and other common folk if you could work the Practice with any skill, wouldcha? The only secrets you know are how to drive off a good woman.”

Now, fury welled within Knox—because he knew she spoke true, at least except for her last insult. He had performed poorly during his time as a student; he’d tried several universities before he realized that he’d never be a magus, that his life as a thaumaturgic drudge performing minor workings for those who could afford him had been long before preordained. By the time he had come to the realization, though, the debt he had accrued in his attempt at greatness had forced him into the poverty of the rickety apartment building in the slums of Asterfaen—more so that his creditors could not find him than to save the money to pay them. He had attempted to find employ with the Artificer Houses, where he would have lived a grand life even as an arcane cog in the machines of Artificial production, but the Houses sneered at his modest skill.

He found some employ within the city, using thaumaturgy to enhance the parties of wealthy merchants with illusory spectacles, or to assist some black-thumbed wife of a minor noble with her gardening. But he was the one they summoned when more proficient freelance thaumaturges had already found employment; he lived off the scraps of his arcane superiors. The jobs were few and far between, and he had learned to ration his modest earnings to tide him until his next employment.

Almost he had come to terms with all of this. With a silent resignation, he had slumped defeatedly into the details of his life and his work. Until he met Wilda. A barmaid, sure, but her pleasure in the simple joys of life had simultaneously made him forget the rest and desire to rise above. She had inspired him in all things, supported him in all things, become all things to him. But she was gone now, and Beatrice’s last words stung too deep to not respond.

Throwing the door wide open, he produced the carving knife and held it to Beatrice’s face as he pushed her against the balcony’s railing, lifting her heels so that she rested on the tips of her toes and struggled to maintain balance. Knox found that he enjoyed the fear in her eyes more than he would have enjoyed an apology for her harshness.

He reached behind her and pulled her golden locks taut between their faces, lingering for a moment before sawing at the hairs with the blade to remove a tattered keepsake.

“You know what a thaumaturge can do to you with a piece of your body, yes?” he whispered to her, the lowered volume more malicious than shouting could have been.

“Y-yes,” she said, nodding slowly.

“Good. Then go back into your squalid pen and trouble me no more.”

When he stepped back from her she clutched at her hair as if sorely wounded, sobbing and shuffling away to her adjacent apartment, slamming the door shut and bolting it hurriedly. Knox smiled to himself, at least until he spied in the street below an old washerwoman, stopped in the middle of pouring out a tub of brackish water to mix with all the other refuse and offal slowly wending its way downhill. She glowered at him until his own hard stare forced her to finish her task and skitter back to whence she came.

Nosy neighbors driven off, he returned to the darkness of his apartment, letting the seized hair scatter to the wind before he did. He’d never been a competent theurgist anyway; the ritual with which he now concerned himself would have been unthinkable were it not for his desperation.

The door latched and bolted once again, his eyes slowly adjusting to the flickering firelight, he continued to etch out the sigil in the plaster on the wall he shared with Beatrice. He could hear her sobs, barely suppressed, between the strokes of his blade. Like the first, he imbued this arcane symbol with the Power before making similar designs in the door and the one wall that remained.

He paused for a minute now, trying to recall the next step. Sifting the thoughts racing through his mind proved of no avail, so he stepped delicately over the paraphernalia he’d left haphazardly strewn across the floor as he made his way to his bed. This he pushed aside, exposing the wood floor beneath. With the tip of his carving knife, he pried away the loose board and stuck his hand inside the revealed space, pulling forth a crumpled stack of parchment like some illusionist’s trick.

Held up to the candlelight, he reordered the pages until he believed he had set them right again; his nervousness about being discovered with such contraband prevented him from careful organization the last time he had retrieved and studied them. He mumbled the words softly to himself as he worked through the text, seeking his place among the myriad preparatory steps.

Only at great cost had he copied these pages from Cadessia eld Caithra’s A Practical Guide to Deep Conjury, a book forbidden by the Vigil to all but the most renowned of magisters. He had posed as a student at the University to gain access to the library, though by now his ability to pass for the age of students admitted to the study of the Practices stretched credulity. The dark of night had helped. Upon entry to the repository of arcane texts, he had followed memory to the location of those texts preserved for the most trusted of practitioners—usually vigilants investigating reports for evidence of occult malefice—but barred to general study or reference.

These texts, like those who might employ them, were kept in a dungeon built below the library proper, deprived of both light and regular visitation, with only each other to keep company. Only students of the Practices could enter the section of the library where the scrolls and codices of arcana were kept. The stone archway dividing the library’s mundane and arcane sections had been, since well before Knox’s time there, affectionately referred to as the Gargoyle’s Gate, flanked as it was by two examples of the alchemical prowess of the Old Aenyr (which had long since been quieted of course, though students often complained that the eyes of those stone beasts tracked them as they passed). Gargoyle’s Gate always had at least one student being groomed for the Vigil at guard. This, however, had proved a minor obstacle, as the young men and women posted there typically had not yet overcome their anxiety over confronting those who might enter the restricted area. There were always gawkers, mundane students and the like, attempting to enter that much-whispered-about section of the library through bluster, diversion or sheer bravado.

The texts available in the general repository of the arcane, while useful to those with the Gift, were quite useless to those without the long training and innate capabilities necessary to make sense of—much less employ—the information within. Access to this area, which Knox had visited so many times as a student himself, had been no true hindrance.

But that sunken dungeon where the idolatrous, heretical and blasphemous texts lay under lock and key, magical ward, and active guard by full members of the Vigil, that constituted a barrier to Knox’s goal. To access this sanctum had taken all of his cunning. And not cunning alone; he had called in every favor owed to him, spent every coin he could save, stretched his own Gift to the breaking point (and likely beyond) in the acquisition of the pages he held now, carefully cut from the tome that had held them in the few moments he had managed within the treasure house of knowledge.

He had bribed several students to distract the vigilants while he made his foray into the forbidden section, had solicited the help of outlaw practitioners to assault the vault’s wards and protections (he shuddered to think at the favors they would require of him in recompense for such assistance), had learned from thieves and burglars the art and craft of picking a lock.

The cost paid, he held within his hands those yellowed pages that he had cut from eld Caithra’s tome. Ordered, or at least he hoped he had organized them properly, he paced absentmindedly back to the center of the room, his toe stubbing against the heavy sack of his ritual materials.

This he picked up a stick of blue chalk, the result of an ultramarine pigment that would have been far too expensive for him had he purchased it from reputable sources, from next to the sack. His poverty allowed him no such luxury as to question the provenance of such goods.

Glancing back and forth to the stolen pages of eld Caithra’s manual, Knox turned his attention to drawing on the apartment’s floor, a large circle of Power, far more complex and intricate than the minor sigils he had affixed to the walls and empowered through his Will. Complex geometries met with runes the likes of which Knox had never seen—not even during his time at the universities. He quickly abandoned any attempt to make sense of the design with the poor amount of thaumaturgical theory he had retained; he simply hoped that his trust in eld Caithra had not been misplaced.

His circle complete and unbroken, he stood up to compare it against the diagram on eld Caithra’s stolen pages. If any discrepancy existed, he did not see it. A pang of doubt twisted in his stomach, eating away at him slowly, subtly. This drove him back to the bag of essentials, where he fished out a small earthenware bottle. In a well-practiced motion, he removed the cork and brought the lip of the bottle to his own parched lips, drawing a long swig of hard brandy. He returned the cork to the bottle and set it on the table; by the time this was done Knox could feel the liquor dulling the edges of his consciousness ever so delightfully.

Next came the fresh candles. One by one, Knox lit each with a minor sorcery, found its intended location on eld Caithra’s diagrams, dripped a small amount of wax onto the floor and pushed the bottom of the candle in, forming a semi-stable base as the dripped wax cooled. Thirteen candles in all, most of them set at the odd intersections of the lines of the circle of Power, but a few in places unexpected in and around the drawn symbols.

The new candles added their own flickering light to the old, changing the forms of the dancing shadows that adorned the walls, turning them into a churning ocean of dark shapes flowing back and forth tumultuously. These caught Knox’s attention for some time; he discerned shapes within the shadows that instinct told him were wrong. He had no explanation for it, too poor an understanding of natural philosophy to dress the feeling in words, but subconscious experience told him that something had changed, that the shadows no longer behaved as they ought. Despite the brandy, fear—not doubt, this time—surged within him, particularly as he guessed at the meaning of the wayward shadows.

For this working, however, the shadows were no mere side-effect of the Power, nor an indication of a mistake made along the way. Quite the opposite; the menacing and seemingly-autonomous forms of darkness occupying the corners of the apartment proved that he had followed his instructions properly. His preparation had worn the Veil thin here.

Another swig of the brandy, this one shorter than the first. He needed to quiet his mind just enough that he would not run screaming from the room once he began the ritual proper, but needed to retain his wits enough for the precise and delicate work of mind and hands that success required. He waited after the drink for a moment, letting the effects sink in, practicing the handforms he used as aids to his thaumaturgical workings to test the dexterity left to him, shaking his head slightly to test his balance, reciting bawdy songs from the taverns he frequented to check the agility of his unsober thoughts.

From this point onward, there could be no haphazard approach; no period for desultory preparation remained to him. Considering the state of his mind, he took one more tiny sip from the bottle, recorked it, and placed it near where he would be sitting for the ritual. He expected hours in the doing of this thing and did not doubt that he would need to refresh his courage from time to time.

He peered through the slats in the shutters one more time, listened for Beatrice’s sobbing at his apartment wall. Neither movement in the street below nor sound from the adjacent hovel met his attention. From the bag he pulled the remaining instruments: a small but ornate wooden knife, its edge sanded fine and sharp, occult symbols painstakingly carved along both handle and blade; a small bronze bowl, plain and utilitarian; a thin clay jar filled with charcoal mixed with the crushed leaves of the elder tree, petals of the bitter nightshade, bits of the weeping greycap; a vial of clear river water; a wide, shallow bowl carved from a single piece of wood; a clay talisman that had been buried beneath the gallows before an execution.

Laying out the items, he sat before the circle of Power. The charcoal mix he poured into the bronze bowl, the river water into the wooden. He set the athame and the talisman directly before his folded legs. Everything readied, the ritual commenced in earnest.

Knox spoke the opening words softly and in a circle, beginning again once he had completed the incantation. At first he read the lines from the page he held before him, but soon he closed his eyes and recited from memory, hoping that his pronunciation would be acceptable to whatever spirits controlled the ritual’s success—it had been some time indeed since he had read anything in Old Aenyr, much less spoken the tongue aloud.

Seven times seven repetitions he made, just as eld Caithra instructed him. His closed eyes prevented him from seeing the frenetic swaying of the living shadows that surrounded him, but he could feel on his skin the candles’ flames flickering, leaning and dancing with greater intensity, reaching out to caress his skin. Several times he felt he had been burned, but he dared not open his eyes to check, lest he misspeak the words of Power, or forget the number of times he had said them.

The initial incantation complete, he opened his eyes to again reference the pages of Deep Conjury. He shuffled the pages several times, doing his best to ignore the unnatural movements of both light and shadow around him, before he found his place again.

The next part he had dreaded since first reading it. For a moment, he considered bullying Beatrice into joining him, using her blood to fulfill the ritual’s coming requirement. Shaking his head, he decided against it. She may have wounded him metaphorically, but he found himself unwilling to return the favor literally. Besides, he had committed many crimes simply to acquire the means to perform the ritual; he had to draw a line somewhere or risk losing himself completely.

He moved the bronze bowl into a smaller circle at the center of the ritual design he had created in chalk. Then he took the wooden knife in his right hand. With his left, he positioned the talisman in a convenient spot before him. With a deep breath, he opened his left hand and dragged the blade across his palm, leaving a crimson line that burned hot in its wake. Though Knox had prepared himself as best he could, he had doggedly remained a stranger to pain in his life, and this wound stung deep and sharp. He bit his lip to prevent a string of obscenities from spewing forth involuntarily.

He dropped the knife more than placed it on the floor, squeezing his cut palm against itself and letting the beads of blood that dripped from between his fingers fall onto the talisman. When the face of the talisman had become fully red, he tore a strip of cloth from the sack. This he wrapped tightly around his palm before taking another swig of the brandy, carefully gauging the amount—enough to dull the pain, not so much as to ruin the progress he’d made. Now, at least, he could blame the odd movements of flame and shadow on his own inebriation.

He delicately balanced the bloody talisman on top of the pile of charcoal and plant parts in the bronze bowl. Lifting the page containing the next incantation to his eyes, he began to chant again, this time slightly louder than before. Seven times seven repetitions of the words, spoken without ceasing, the pattern itself becoming a mesmerizing focus. Or perhaps that was simply the brandy catching up to him.

Knox did his best to silence his inner monologue, focusing on nothing but the recitation of the proper words. At this point, the ritual had become truly dangerous. Before, failure had simply meant failure: nothing, no discernable result. Now, though, a mistake carried the potential to call something across the Veil that should not be allowed across that threshold. For such a contingency, he knew he was unprepared. He had no margin for error.

As he chanted, he could feel hands drifting lightly across his back, fingers barely making contact with him in a way that chilled far more than any firmer touch. Without looking, he knew the source of the sensation; the shadows that had been waiting in the corners of the room reached for him, pushing through the Veil just enough to cause sensation, but not enough to truly manifest. Or so he hoped.

When he concluded this latest invocation of Power, the talisman cracked into two halves, somehow causing the bowl’s contents to ignite in a gout of blue flame accompanied by an acrid stench. The fire in the bowl, despite settling to a modest size, overpowered all other light in the room, bathing everything in its azure aura. The shadows’ touches came now with greater force behind them, as if poking and prodding at Knox to continue.

Continue he did. He moved the bowl of water in front of him, stared into it as he spoke the next words: “Alilvai, Wilda, tasnaqynar. Alilvai, Wilda, tasnqynar!” For some time he repeated the words to no effect. He began to wonder whether he had done something wrong, misspoken the words. This made him wonder whether, at any moment, some other spirit might pass through the thinness in the Veil he had created and destroy him. These thoughts together threatened to break all concentration. With a great effort of will, he pushed them aside. For now.

He had lost count of how many times he had repeated the phrase. Fortunately, this one stage in the ritual required persistence rather than precision. Finally, the water in the bowl began to ripple of its own accord, as if unseen droplets had fallen into the center of the pool and disturbed it. The wake of these invisible intrusions brought the water to the very lip of the bowl; for a brief instant, Knox wondered whether it would spill over.

When the water settled, a face appeared on its surface, as if it had become a mirror reflecting the visage of the one who looked into it. But it was not Knox’s face that appeared in the liquid.

Nevertheless, he recognized that face immediately; many times and in great detail had studied its lines, its movements, the freckles and creases, the ridge of the cheekbones and slightly crooked nose. Wilda stared back at him from within the bowl. But her face remained inanimate, unmoving, ignorant of his presence.

This was no mere séance, and Knox had begun with far more in mind than simply recalling her appearance to a bowl of water. This was a step along the way. A crucial step, after all the preparation he had done, but otherwise a relatively minor one. Even so, he could not stop his heart beating faster when he looked upon her face again. For a brief moment, he ignored the blue flame, the oddly moving shadow-forms, the scratching sound that incessantly scraped at the edge of his hearing. There was only Wilda, just as it had been when she had lived with him for that too-brief time.

Remembering his purpose, he took the bowl carefully in both hands and, attentive not to disturb the circle he had drawn in blue chalk, which, in the light of the flickering blue flame now seemed to emanate a light of its very own, he gently poured the water containing Wilda’s face into the fire.

A great gout of steam issued forth from the rapidly-evaporating water, though the fire remained unchanged in its form or intensity. Knox stepped back and stood watching as the steam resolved itself into a form, abstract at first but coalescing into an ever-denser structure until the shape of a human woman occupied the space that had been filled only with vapor. When the form became undeniably Wilda, Knox could not make out where the steam had gone, leaving only this person—fully colored though not entirely opaque—in the room with him. He gasped audibly.

Wilda looked around the room and then to Knox, her confusion plain on her face. “Why have you called me here?” she asked.

“Wilda, it’s me, Knox.”

She focused on him, her brow furrowing in concentration, as if she’d been farsighted and had forgotten to bring her spectacles. Recognition washed over her and her strain became a contented smile. “Knox, my dear. You should not have done this.” Her tone remained at once serious and yet tinged with playfulness. She had always been that way, able to call him out and keep him on the right path without scolding.

She brushed his cheek with the back of her hand; it felt as the slow rush of a heavy wind over his face. Intoxicating and yet ephemeral. “You’re sweet, my love,” she continued, “but you know you cannot keep me here. My time Between is nearing its end. I can feel it. Soon, I’ll be born into the Avar anew, to start a new life and continue on the Path.”

“I’ll find you.”

“Don’t be foolish, my love. Not even an archmagus of the Conclave could be sure of the past lives of any soul. And you are many things, many great things, my love. But you are not an archmagus.”

A tear ran down Knox’s face. “I can’t lose you.”

“Nothing is ever lost, my love. Not forever. We may not be together for some time, but in the end, when we have both walked out Paths to their conclusion, when we have ascended to the Promised Kingdom, we will be united. I know it.”

“I don’t know how I’ll make it that long,” Knox complained.

“But you will.”

He knew there was nothing more to say on the matter, nothing either of them could do. He changed the subject, if only in attempt to avoid collapsing further into despair. “What is it like Between?”

“How long have I been gone, my love?”

“About a year.”

“That long?”

“It took me that long to prepare for all of this,” he said.

“That’s not what I meant, dear. It feels like I’ve not been there long at all.”

“So it must be a pleasant place, then. Tell me about it.”

She opened her spectral mouth to speak, but a strange look crossed her face, as if the words simply would not come. “It is on the tip of my tongue, but I cannot describe it to you.” She paused for a moment, if feeling her way blindly through some force that barred free expression. “I can only say that I have been content there, but there is a growing sadness and fear in that place.”

Knox considered the words, let the existential angst of the revelation sink in. “Are you safe?”

She smiled. “As I said, I am leaving soon. You will see what it is like for yourself one day, as you have before and will many times again. But you will not remember everything until the end, when you are finally made whole. It is as we are taught—when in the Avar, it is hard to remember the Between; when Between, it is hard to remember the Avar.”

“Do you mean you’re leaving the Between soon or you’re leaving here soon?” he asked.

“Both, my love. I cannot stay forever. We are lucky that I could come at all. Perhaps it is a testament that we are meant to be together.”

“I—” he began, but a heavy crack against the apartment door stopped him cold. Both he and his paramour turned to look.

The door visibly buckled inward against the strain of the second strike and small cracks in the boards revealed themselves, but it did not break until the third strike. It splintered inward, shards striking Knox and scratching him, passing through Wilda’s phantom without resistance.

Immediately, two cloaked men stepped into the room, swords drawn. Night had long since fallen, but more men stood ready on the balcony, and in the wavering torchlight Knox thought he saw Beatrice, her jaw clenched in vengeful defiance.

A look of surprise briefly passed over the two men’s faces, but this quickly changed into hardened guardedness as they adopted fighting stances and divided their attention between Knox and the shadow-forms that seemed to have retreated into the darker corners of the room, still moving with an unnatural intelligence. Their swords had been engraved with runes that faintly glowed red, a response to the arcane Power that filled the space.

Under their cloaks the men wore a strange mix of gear. Breastplates over black brigandines protected their chests, with pistols tucked into the blue sashes over their waists. But the bandolier that ran over their breastplates held not charges for their firearms but small potion vials, miniature scrolls, and assorted talismans and arcane devices. Sheathed next to their sword scabbard they carried both wand and rod; the pouches on their sword belts were undoubtedly filled with other occult gewgaws. Knox knew them before they announced themselves, had half-expected their arrival despite his obfuscatory wards.

“In the name of the Vigil—” one began.

Before he could finish, Knox was already moving. Yelling, “I love you; I’m sorry,” he slid his foot back across the circle of Power, smearing chalk and breaking it. The shadows leapt from the corners of the room, unliving but animate, sufficiently manifested in the Avar to attack the vigilants physically.

Chaos broke out; the cloaked men attempted simultaneously to defend themselves with their blades—despite the small space in which to move—and to summon sorcerous power against the dark spirits that assaulted them. The vigilants outside on the balcony began incanting, preparing more powerful thaumaturgies of banishing to assist their brothers. Beatrice’s scream of terror pierced all other sounds.

In the pandemonium, Knox passed through the spirit form of his dead lover, again feeling the density of the air pass around him. He kicked the fiery bowl in the center of the circle hard, bouncing coals and container alike against the room’s back wall. Almost immediately, his bed caught fire, burning bright and blue.

He turned to look behind him and saw that Wilda had disappeared, likely as soon as the makeshift brazier moved from its ritual placement. The life-and-death struggle between the unclean spirits and the vigilants raged and, as Knox had hoped, he had created an opportunity. He moved to one of the windows in the apartment’s outer wall, threw open the shutters and began to scramble his way out of the hole. The crack of a pistol rang out and Knox could feel as much as hear the shotte zip past him and into the adjacent wall. He did not waste any time looking back.

Knox had not done much climbing since he was a child; even then he had not been as capable as the other boys, scrawny and somewhat sickly as he was in his youth. Worse, his head spun with brandy, clouding both judgment and sense of direction. But the adrenaline carried him far enough, and he scurried about halfway down the outside of the apartment building before he slipped and fell. His feet landed in the muddy de-facto gutter that ran alongside the street below, sliding out from under him and rocking him painfully onto his back.

But he hadn’t struck his head on a stone and his sliding across the mud had probably stopped him from breaking an ankle. He hurt, but not enough to stop him from picking himself up and clambering into the alleyways of the slums, into the darkness that surrounded him now like a comforting blanket.

As he walked briskly away, destination unknown, he could see the flames of his old apartment building rising into the night, excited yells and commands flying into the air like so many embers. It deserved to burn, he thought. Perhaps a whole world that would take his Wilda from him deserved to burn.

Quick and Dirty Review: The Witcher RPG

I only found out about a week ago that R. Talsorian Games would be putting out an RPG for The Witcher, so I fortunately only had about that amount of time to wait before sinking my teeth into the new game. This stands in contrast to Netflix’s upcoming Witcher TV show, which seems to be coming to us only at a laborious pace.

Regardless, I’m a big fan of The Witcher books and setting, and I’m a firm believer that The Witcher 3 video game is hands down the best video game made to date. So an official RPG for this world certainly caught by attention. Not only for the setting itself–my own Avar Narn setting is a gritty fantasy world and I’m always looking for innovative design ideas that might influence my own eventual RPG design.

A brief caveat: this game was (as far as I could tell) just released on DriveThruRPG.com last night (at the end of GenCon, where I believe that hardcopies were available). I picked up my PDF copy on DriveThru for $24.95. A hgher price than many RPG PDFs I’ve purchased, but not as high as several others in my collection.

I do have a day job, so this review is based on a quick read of the book. Take that as you will.

R. Talsorian is known for the Cyberpunk RPG, a classic in the development of roleplaying games as a whole, though a game I’ve never played. The rules are derived from that system, though crafted to fit more particularly with the dark fantasy of The Witcher.

I will say this about the rules–they are sensible, and relatively easy to grasp in their various parts, but there is a complexity to them that makes me think, “Ugh. A fight’s going to take forever.” The attacker rolls for damage, the defender rolls to dodge, the difference between the numbers is compared to determine a hit or critical hit. Hit location is rolled. Damage and critical hit results are rolled (criticals make use of charts that vaguely remind me of The Riddle of Steel RPG and its successors). Those things are all great for creating a gritty feel for combat, but there are a number of ways that all that dice rolling for a single action could be made more efficient.

Still, if D&D is your go-to, I don’t think that you’ll find that this game plays slower than that. And, between the two, I’d take this combat system over D&D and its derivatives any day. It may have a lot of rolling, but its somewhat intuitive and at least interesting under its own mechanics. Sorry, I digress.

I will say, though, that tracking weapon endurance points is a bit much. It’s one thing to have weapons break at dramatic moments, or to have a system that encourages players to have their characters maintain their equipment, it’s another to have to knock off a point of reliability every time I use it to block (though there are exceptions that allow for blocking without sacrificing weapon endurance in certain circumstances).

The other gripe I have is not necessarily a gripe with the rules but a potential pitfall for any RPG that does this setting justice–players who have characters who are not witchers or mages may find themselves greatly overshadowed. Careful planning and discussion before a campaign begins may be warranted to ensure that players are all on the same page.

To me, a “regular” guy (to the extent that RPG player characters ever represent average people, even within the game world they occupy) forced to deal with monsters is perhaps more interesting than a witcher who does–Geralt excepted, mostly because I don’t believe it’s his being a mutant monster-killer that makes him most interesting.

The rulebook misleads on this front a little, I’m afraid. While continuously making clear that most monsters take half damage from non-magical or non-silver attacks, it seems implicit within the writing that the designers just don’t believe that non-witchers would ever have access to silver weapons. I just don’t find that plausible.

It should also be noted that the game is licensed from CD Projekt Red, and thus based on the video game Witcher 3 rather than the books directly. There are some optional rules to bring the game more in line with how things work in the books when that divurges from the game.

As for the look of the book: the layout and artwork are exceptional; the end result is surely a thing of beauty. Combined with fairly extensive background information on the world of The Witcher, I think that this book is a must-have even for a fan of the setting who doesn’t have any interest in roleplaying games.

But for those who do, the gamemaster section of the book has some excellent advice for gamerunners. There are plenty of roleplaying game books that are valuable in particular for their advice to the GM (and a growing number of books dedicated solely to that task), but this is a nice additional benefit.

The Witcher RPG releases at an interesting time, I think–the early draft of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition just dropped recently. Both are gritty fantasy settings full up with desperate surivors over heroes, where adventuring is not a glamorous or desireable profession. Both are intricate settings with deep history and a rabid fanbase. Both games have, I think, pretty similar levels of “crunch” to them (though, to be honest, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” attributed to games). In other worlds, they fill the same niche, a more mature-by-design setting for fantasy games compared to D&D and other “epic” fantasy games.

Is the RPG market big enough for them both? On the one hand, I’m not sure that it matters. They’re both out and I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of supplements for The Witcher RPG (though I won’t mind being surprised). If history is any indication, WFRP4 will have more supplements than the biggest guy at the gym. Certainly, there are loads of high-fantasy games and no shortage of designers trying to make it with new ones (or their own particular flavor of OSR games, for that matter).

In some ways, The Witcher RPG reminds me of the Artesia: Adventures in the Known World rulebook, a RPG that uses a pre-existing-ruleset-that-is-fascinating-but-more-complex-than-I-really-want-to-run to bring to life a fantasy setting born out of traditional fiction that I very much love.

Given that, I expect that The Witcher RPG will fill a similar role in my collection–an RPG that is fun to read but that I’ll probably never run.

A Shameless Plug for my Fiction

It’s part of the name of the blog, so it should be easy to find, right? Recently, I’ve been working on some new short stories for my fantasy setting (Avar Narn), which will be posted to the site soon. I’m very excited about them, and I think you’ll enjoy them–particularly if you’re a fan of dark and gritty fantasy. I’ve also recently made some changes to the blog to make the existing Avar Narn fiction easier to find and read.

First, I’ve created a category on the blog that holds only Avar Narn fiction (with separate categories holding detail about the setting and notes on my experience writing fiction for Avar Narn). Second, I’ve added PDF copies of each of the short stories, so that you can download them for later and read them in (what I think, anyway) is a better format than the relatively-limited formatting of a blog post.

To make it even easier, especially if you’re coming to my blog for the first time, here are links to each of the currently-posted stories:

“Poetics of Parting”
“Collections”
“Kenning”
“The Siege of Uthcaire”
“Rites of Passage”

Fiction & Fatherhood Update and Roadmap

Most of what I’ve posted about lately has been theological in nature, so I thought it might be good to give some of my readers more interested in other aspects of the blog an update and information about what to expect in the future. Here we go:

Fiction

I’m currently working on the following for my fiction:

Avar Narn Novel

By the end of NaNoWriMo last November, I’d put on paper what I estimate to be about 40% or so of the novel. I’ve been editing and slowly rewriting scenes and plot lines for this portion of the book and have the intention of attempting to finish the first draft during NaNoWriMo this year. I may be looking for early readers of drafts, so contact me if that’s something you’re interested in.

Short Stories

I’d like to put some more short stories on the blog to give readers a better feel for my writing. I’ve got one currently under way set in the world of the Worldbuilding Example Series. Not currently sure whether most of what I work on in the near future will fall into that setting or into Avar Narn; we’ll just have to see. I’m also not sure whether I’ll try to submit the short stories anywhere before posting them here–that may depend on how good I feel they are. Again, if anyone out there is interested in critiquing and helping to edit some of these, shoot me a message.

Dark Inheritance

I’m a pretty big fan of the Warhammer 40K universe. While the logic of the setting is highly questionable at times, it’s a science fantasy setting I spent a lot of time in while I was younger, I respect the depth of accreted material over the years since, and it’s just plain fun. Also, there’s a new 40K roleplaying game (Wrath & Glory) due out about August, and I’m excited about that.

Dark Inheritance will be an expansive campaign for Wrath & Glory. It will be posted here in PDF format for any gamemaster who wants to run it for their players. I’m excited about this project as a different form of writing (for public consumption) than I’m used to, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to be writing full story arcs for the RPGs I run rather than building stories on the fly in the last minutes before it’s time to game.

Since the ruleset won’t be out until August or so, the campaign won’t be published until after that. But I’m working now on the story arcs, flow of the campaign and locales and dramatis personae, so it hopefully won’t take me long to add the rules-based information after I have it in my grubby hands.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun Ruleset

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m a big fan of the Shadowrun setting. Not so much the rules. I am, however, a big fan of the Cortex Plus system and its soon-to-be-released successor, Cortex Prime. So, I’m working on a ruleset for Shadowun using the toolkit that Cortex provides.

This has been done before by others, but I’ve never seen a conversion done that I really liked, so I’m doing my own. Cortex Prime has also not been fully released yet, but I expect that it has enough in common with Cortex Plus that only minor tweaks will be required after I have the new rules.

The Cortex Prime kickstarter said to expect a first draft of the rules in the next week or two nearly three weeks ago, so I assume I’ll be able to wrap this project up sooner rather than later.

Yes, that’s a lot of projects. Yes, if I focused on one at a time I’d get at least something to you faster. But that’s not how my creative side works, so it is what it is.

Fatherhood

Tonight, K and I begin several days of refreshing our training as foster parents. We are currently scheduled to renew our home study on July 5th. If all goes according to plan, we should be fully licensed for a new placement shortly after that.

We’re not yet decided on the timing of a new placement, but I would expect that we will take one sometime between late July and early September.

When there are kiddos back in the house, I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to write about in the currently-on-hiatus “Fatherhood” section of the blog.

Wonder Woman: Some Thoughts

I know, I’m way late to the game. I’m not a big superhero fan (being that I like my fiction a bit grittier, though I acknowledge that there are some gritty comics), so I didn’t see Wonder Woman until it happened to show up on one of the streaming services to which we subscribe.

I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like it, not because it wasn’t entertaining (it was) or I had any issue with the acting (it was pretty good) or I didn’t like the setting (WWI is interesting). I didn’t like it because of the way it argued against its own narrative.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

If you haven’t seen the film, or have forgotten it, or have paid no heed to the spoiler warning, the main conflict of the film turns on the conflict between Wonder Woman (as champion of the mythical Amazons) against Ares, the god of war. In the story’s twist on Greek myth, Ares killed the other gods in a war over humanity but was injured himself such that he is only returning to exert his influence to destroy humanity in the early 20th century.

A key point of his plan is to create a souped-up chemical weapon (an improved mustard gas, if you will) to prevent an armistice from ending World War I so that humans will keep fighting and killing one another because Ares believes they are evil, selfish beings that deserve to be wiped out.

You can bet my ears perked up at this, because this is an existential-level question about the nature of man. An interesting set-up, but poor followthrough. Despite some platitudes between Diana and Steve Trevor about how you can’t defeat the kind of evil that Ares simultaneously represents and accuses humans of possessing with more violence, that’s really the only tool they employ (except perhaps for Trevor’s attempt to detonate the poison gas at a high enough altitude to render it harmless).

I couldn’t help but compare Wonder Woman to the poison gas itself–she functioned in most respects as a weapon against which there is no ready defense. If she entered a room full of German soldiers, you can bet that they were all dead within seconds despite the feeblest of attempts to defend themselves (which was the best that they could manage given that Wonder Woman herself is later revealed to be a god).

And thus, despite a clear intent to communicate something more, the film falls fatally into that great American lie: that the road to peace is travelled by being stronger than everyone else and able to coerce them into following your idea about what is good–or else.

Violence is never more than a temporary solution that causes as many future problems as it overcomes in the present. I’d like to say that that’s the reason I never really got into superheroes like many of my friends did–this latent power fantasy that we all in our darkest selves want to own, the ability to be forced, coerced or conquered by no man and no thing, thus establishing what is “good” and “true” by fiat.

I am not against fictional violence. I play and enjoy combat-oriented video games and tabletop games, preferring those that force tough moral choices. I watch and enjoy action movies and TV shows that often feature violence. They are exciting and when death or severe injury is on the table, the meaning of the action is heightened. This is excellent for narratives and games, but not so much for real life.

Thus, I think it’s important that we treat characters a little more realistically. Not that we can’t or shouldn’t have characters with kewl powerz, but that we take the time to nuance the choices and morality of those involved in a story. Maybe this is why, ultimately, I prefer my fiction gritty: it’s easier to put into context people who are broken and flawed participating in violence because they are unable to take more noble courses of action, separating my enjoyment of their struggles and stories from my beliefs about right behavior and moral action when real lives are at stake.

So, while the film was well-acted and well-shot, I just couldn’t get over the characters’ actions arguing so strongly against the values that they claimed to espouse. The cognitivie dissonance I felt on their behalves became too much for enjoyment.

For the Love of the Game: Sea of Thieves (Mini) Review

I love to sail, but I have few opportunities to do so. K’s not a fan, and I do not own a sailboat. We probably live close enough to water where I could rent a sailboat, but it’s something I’ve never really thought to do (though I’m thinking about it now!).

As you well know, I also like to play video games. I have to admit, though, that this is a guilty pleasure. Most of the time I’m playing games–though I’m enjoying that time–I wish I was doing something more productive (like writing). Perhaps what frustrates me most is that I recognize I’m often falling victim to the addiction cycle purposefully designed into modern games–do repetitive acts to be rewarded with more prestigious (but ultimately meaningless) rewards for your efforts.

This is what I like about Sea of Thieves. It has the typical multiplayer online game addiction cycle, but it’s just not that addicting. The game content is relatively limited and will certainly need to be expanded for the game to survive (I have some recommendations if Microsoft or Rare would only ask), but for now, I think it’s a benefit. It’s a benefit because I find only one good reason to play the game: because you enjoy it.

The “analog” feel of the game is its strongest point. Want to read a map? You have to hold it up to your face and read it. Need to count paces to buried treasure? Hold up your compass to count your steps. Need to sail the ship? You need to work the anchor, the wheel the length of the sails and their angle to the wind. I certainly wouldn’t call the physics perfect, but it provides enough realism that you can gain advantage when attacking another ship by holding the wind gauge, can use the anchor to execute a bootlegger turn, can (and sometimes must) effectively tack into the wind and generally get the feel for sailing.

If your ship takes damage, you’ll need to get out your wooden planks to patch the hull, and then you’ll need to get out your trusty bucket to bail out water.

Although I’ve been completing “voyages” (the games version of missions or quests), it has been the enjoyment of sailing, of searching for treasure, of moving around the ship to do all the things that must be done to effectively sail or fight, that keeps me coming back to the game.

I’ve been a big fan of the game “Artemis,” in which you and friends operate the various stations of a Star Trek-like spaceship to accomplish missions (mostly defending space stations and destroying enemy ships). I love the necessary cooperation of that game, and Sea of Thieves hits that sweet spot in a more polished game. Working with my friends to effectively sail a galleon has been great fun and–sometimes–realistically frustrating.

It’s the game for the game’s sake that is so refreshing. Play of the game is player-driven and somewhat open-ended. Will this keep me coming back over the long term? I don’t know, but I hope the immersive style of the game that begs you to play just to play becomes a future trend in games as a whole.

Review: The Last Jedi

This is my first review of a film instead of a book, but Star Wars merits an exception, doesn’t it?

Disclaimer: I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I don’t own a lightsaber or much in the way of memorabilia; I’ve never been to a Star Wars con; and I don’t spend any time on Star Wars-specific forums or subreddits. But I’m still a huge Star Wars fan.

I grew up on the original films, and my first roleplaying game was the second edition of the old West End Games Star Wars RPG. There’s a special place for Star Wars in my heart, and it’s probably fair to say that, as a young person, it and The Lord of the Rings had the greatest influence on my fascination with fantasy and science fiction. I’m not sure I’ve played all of the Star Wars video games ever produced, but I’m sure I’m close. When Disney “reset” the canon, I began to pick up the books as well, vowing that I’d try to keep up with the universe this time in a way I never did previously.

So, like most of us, I think I went into this film with great expectations. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but it followed too closely to the formula of A New Hope for my tastes. A few days before my trip to the theater, I heard a glowing review for the film on NPR–this only increased my anticipation.

The Last Jedi is, to date, my favorite Star Wars film. Before seeing it, I probably would have said that Rogue One was my favorite, as (predictably) I loved its grit and its willingness to take some narrative risks that the “main” films mostly shied away from.

The Last Jedi is currently my favorite Star Wars film because it does an excellent job of capturing the wonder of the original films while throwing in modern sensibilities. From the tactical gear worn by stormtroopers to the new variety of settings (like the casino-city of Canto Bight), the visuals of the film expanded on and brought the setting out of the late 70’s and early 80’s (while still sporting that retro style and incorporating the feel of McQuarrie’s art).

More important, the film moved away from pure Campbellian structure and adopted a depth and complexity that made everything feel that much more real. Both Rey and Kylo Ren have a depth to them that lacked in previous Star Wars films, and Skywalker himself added bore a combination of concealed hope, determination and burned-out jadedness that made us (me, at least) simultaneously love and hate him.

It’s quite possible that what’s going on here is that nuance is one of my very favorite things; The Last Jedi brings nuance to Star Wars in spades. One of the greatest things about the Star Wars universe is the ability to explore it–through the films, other media, roleplaying games, etc. The latest installment gives us permission to explore more than just the variety of the aliens and worlds in the setting, but a variety of moral questions and morally ambiguous characters–such as the rogue DJ.

In this, Star Wars has finally come into its adulthood. At forty years old, it’s certainly a late bloomer, but well worth the wait.

Additionally, this film follows some very interesting trends in the setting since its acquisition by Disney. The first of these is, as a friend put it, “the democratization of the Force.” We’ve seen that in the series Star Wars: Rebels, which adds several surviving Jedi other than Luke to the canon, and its certainly a driving force (pun intended, I have) in Luke during this film.

For me, this is very well taken. As much as I love Jedi as the samurai priest-knights of science-fiction bushido–Buddhism, I’ve long been of the opinion that, from the perspective of the common person in the Star Wars universe, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. From that perspective, they tend to be self-righteous, religiously fanatic, prudish and unwelcome intervenors with a tendency to bring at least as much (and possibly more) conflict than peace. Their obsession with balance in the Force makes them seemingly culpable of making peace with some injustices and the Jedi Code (to me, at least) reeks of insupportable philistinism–they are supposed to represent light and good, but are told that they should never love and should avoid attachments. Rather than embracing suffering and attempting to overcome it, they simply attempt to avoid it altogether. If the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, the Jedi Code is–again in my estimation–emblematic of the corrupting power of that meta-fear.

I realize my nerd is showing; but you knew what this was before you started reading.

As Luke says, it is time for the Jedi to die. They ought to be replaced by a new type of Jedi who eschews a rigid and unflexible Code in favor of striving for the greatest good–in favor of following the Light side of the Force with reckless abandon. But keep the lightsabers, because they’re cool. Before the film released, there was much speculation that there’d be movement toward the philosophy of the “Gray” Jedi (look it up). I think The Last Jedi has given us some indication of that.

Not to overly combine my interests in this blog, but the message of this film regarding the Force is quite apropos for the times. It is a call to move away from the uncompromising nature of fundamentalist religion and toward the truer (but more difficult) ambiguity of seeking after good and valuing Creation and relationships. It is a condemnation of the consequences of unquestioning religious fanaticism which, paradoxically, tends to ignore and reject the deeper and more important ideals on which the religion (whichever it may be) is based.

And maybe that’s what I liked so much about this film. Yes, it was a lot of fun. Yes, it was well-written (there are some arguments about this, but I stand by my statement). Yes, the characters were good. Yes, it’s Star Wars. But most important, it’s a deeper Star Wars that allows us to struggle with philosophical, moral and existential ideas rather than giving us a mythopoeic argument for a two-dimensional worldview. It’s Star Wars that is, at its core, theological.