How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the D&D

I generally don’t like D&D as a gaming system. So how did I get here? Well, given the general downtime for everyone, I started working on a roleplaying game to be played virtually with some friends. Since the Shadowrun game tapered off, I haven’t had a game running and there’s a part of me that’s just not happy whenever that’s the case.

I suggested to my friends a game using the Fate system based on the Tom Clancy’s Division games. I spent a lot of time working on some custom rules for the setting (which I’ll post in their unfinished state in a separate post) before two things happened: (1) several of us came to the conclusion that that setting probably doesn’t provide enough respite from every day life in the COVID-19 world, and (2) two other members in the group both offered to GM/DM if we played Dungeons & Dragons. I do a lot more running of games than playing in them, so, despite my reservations, I quickly agreed and we set about negotiating a rotating GMing situation, with our first game set for this Friday.

Here are some of the (admittedly subjective) reasons I’m not a big fan of D&D:

  1. I would prefer a more “realistic” rules approach to combat, particularly than large hit point pools, armor as making one more difficult to hit and no penalties for taking damage until you’re out-of-action.
  2. I don’t like classes and levels, generally. I tend to think that these constructs detract from roleplaying and character development in their rigidity. For instance, only Rogues get sneak attack bonus damage–other characters are mechanically incapable of taking full advantage of an ambush, no matter whether they’re a soldier whose survived a thousand ambushes himself or a gutter punk getting lucky with a sudden knife attack.
  3. As a corollary, D&D is a game (like Shadowrun) with a ruleset that draws me into ours of obsessive character-building to try to find the exact build that will do all the things I want it to, even while knowing that the character generation’s economy of resources won’t allow for it and I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to play characters that are good at everything.
  4. I see D&D as a system that pushes a game toward combat and the gamist side over the roleplaying side based on its design. As you know, my preference leans heavily narrativist. Basing XP on kills makes me uncomfortable on many levels–from the ethical and theological to game design itself. G.K Chesterton once wrote (and I agree): “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” But that’s a big leap from killing 100 orcs because, well, they’re orcs and “orcs bad!”
  5. Encounter building and levels work together in a way that, if playing strictly by the rules, makes some fights unwinnable. I fully believe that some fights should be unwinnable if the players aren’t resourceful, clever and maybe a bit lucky, but D&D as written militates in favor of a straight-up fight of hit-point attrition and forces the good GM to make-up whole cloth how alternative approaches work. Yes, we can talk about “rules versus rulings,” but I’d argue that, when we have to have that conversation at all, something it lacking in what the rules are communicating. That’s not to say that rules should address every eventuality and should be rigidly followed–far from it. The problem here is that the D&D books might say that they encourage this kind of player creativity that requires responsive and flexible GM/DM adjudication, but the rules give the impression of the opposite, and few tools are provided to assist in making such ad-hoc judgments. Put another way, I don’t like that Level 1 characters (or 5 or 8 for that matter) don’t have a chance against a dragon simply because they haven’t ground out enough levels yet. In addition to the ways the rules are written complained of above, a skills-based system over a level-based one can go a long way in this regard.
  6. The assumption that combat is the way you overcome monsters bugs me. Why not more interesting possibilities? Ghosts that you don’t hit with magic swords but that must be banished or appeased in some other way that relies on wits and skills more than fighting?
  7. D&D Physics. This is perhaps my biggest gripe, and it’s admittedly about certain players rather than the rules themselves. Some players assume that the rulebooks represent the physics of the worlds D&D games take place in–if something is technically allowable by the rules as written, no matter how ridiculous, then it’s a loophole in the spacetime continuum that should be exploitable by a player. One example: the player who thinks that, as long as he succeeds at a Deception/Persuasion check, he can convince anyone of anything, no matter how blatantly untrue or unlikely. Another, from 3.5e: a ladder costs less than two ten-foot poles, but is comprised of two ten-foot poles plus some other stuff. You do the math. If I remember correctly, in the forward to The Riddle of Steel roleplaying game (an amazing game on many levels, if not the easiest to run), Jake Norwood described a game of D&D where he realized he would take fewer hit points of damage jumping off the cliff he stood atop than fighting his way through the oncoming orc horde as an inspiration for creating a game with much more realistic combat (he’s also a talented western martial artist, so he was just the type of person to write that game).

Okay, that’s a fair amount of griping, and none of it’s new to anyone. While there are alternatives to D&D (some very good ones), D&D retains the large majority of market share in fantasy roleplaying, despite decades of competition. Why? For one, it’s the only name that most would-be roleplayers know. Additionally, it’s got a special nostalgia factor for a lot of gamers my age or older and a solid place within popular culture that grows every year (2 episodes of CommunityStranger Things, the Greetings, Adventurers! and The Adventure Zone podcasts, etc., etc.). But most of all, I must admit, it’s just a fun game. I’ve played several campaigns of D&D in the past, none of them especially-long running but usually going for a few months or so, and not one of the things I’ve mentioned above really factors into my overall-fond memories of those games.

I’ve decided to enter this upcoming D&D campaign with an eye toward throwing aside some of my complaints and design differences and enjoying the game for what it is–a time-tested engine for running enjoyable high-fantasy games. The other players in my group are all fans of D&D and familiar with it (to varying degrees, but certainly moreso on average than any other system I’d choose to run) and, if all goes well, I may well commit to (personally) running more D&D for them in the future.

Okay, so how am I stopping worrying and learning to love the D&D? Some counterarguments to my complaints above I’m trying to keep in my mind as I undertake this adventure:

  1. Hit points aren’t meant to be a reflection of damage (though they often are treated that way). They’re more like Stress in Fate RPG: a narrative indicator of the leeway a character has before receiving a serious injury. A character who loses hitpoints has lost some of that vigor and focus that keeps her from being injured and comes closer to the possibility, but shouldn’t be thought of as having taken a blow (instead having barely turned it aside, etc.). There are a few points that, as a GM, I’d have go along with this: (a) narrate hit point damage as a near miss and degradation of performance but not a blow actually received; (b) use lingering injuries when hitting zero HP to drive home the fact that that’s when injuries occur; (c) use alternative mechanisms over HP to adjudicate unavoidable damage where appropriate (falling, etc.). Under this approach, it makes good sense that armor serves as a buffer to having to use up HP rather than as a dampener on HP lost, so I get a double rationalization with this mindset!
  2. Classes really are a good conceit for certain types of roleplaying games. In D&D, classes give everyone’s character a chance to shine, clear delineations of where characters fit within the team of players, and accentuate’s cooperative, synergistic play as a group.
  3. Levels can make sense, too, within the conceit of the game mechanics. If we’re literally talking about the accumulation of experience that makes adventurers better at what they do, levels are an appropriate shorthand for that, even if not the choice I’d personally make in game design.
  4. A good GM can use the rules in creative ways (or modify/ignore them) to overcome issues about the game being too combat-focused or too restrictive in the allowance of creative problem-solving, and the occasional unbalanced encounter can be a good reminder to players that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.
  5. I tend to take a very particular approach in what I want from roleplaying games–I expect deep immersion and something approaching high art. I rarely get it, so these expectations are just setting myself up for disappointment. If I’m willing to focus on entertaining stories, interesting characters, exciting encounters and generally having fun, I’d likely enjoy running games even more than I currently do. In other words, maybe I should just get over myself. D&D is an excellent system having fun and telling entertaining stories if I forego my pretensions. I retain the belief that RPGs can lead to deep, immersive stories with significant impact on the players’ thoughts and lives–but they don’t have to be, and if my gaming friends frankly aren’t that interested in that kind of roleplaying, maybe I should lighten up and just have more fun with them! After all, I am a writer, so I do have some outlet for the deep and artistic (if that’s actually more than just pretension and something that actually pervades my writing…).

So there it is. D&D may not be my first choice of RPGs, but there are certainly things about it I like, and could potentially grow to love. Now, if I could just figure out how to build the character I want to play…

A Third View of Worldbuilding

The past month has been rather silent on the blog, and for that I apologize. I’ve got a few half-written posts that I’m letting percolate a while and I’ve spent a good deal of that time continuing to expand and refine my fictional setting, Avar Narn.

In undertaking that task, I’ve been thinking a bit about the process and craft of worldbuilding, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you.

I’ve called this post “A Third View of Worldbuilding” to contrast against the two most-commonly-described approaches to building fictional settings: the “top-down approach” and the “bottom-up approach.” As the title suggests, I’m going to offer a third way in this post, one I’ll call the “archaeological” approach. But first, let’s get some definitions of the established approaches.

A Note on Historical Analogues
I think it worthwhile to have a quick sidebar discussion about reliance on examples from the real world in building fictional worlds. There seems to me to be a sense that drawing upon real-world analogues for building nations, cultures, religions, and other aspects of the setting is lazy or uncreative. I’d argue that the use of such analogy is both unavoidable and valuable to worldbuilding when done purposefully and carefully.

Reference to our world is inescapable because humans lack the capacity to create something new ex nihilo. All human creativity is a matter of taking the blocks of what we know and arranging them into new patterns that no one’s thought about before. Lean into it and cut yourself some slack.

I’ve got a quotation at the beginning of my Avar Narn worldbuilding notebook from writer of fiction and roleplaying game content Ari Marmell, and I think it makes the point as concisely as possible. He says, “Originality is great–as a tool for writing good stories and compelling characters, or as a byproduct thereof. It should never be your goal; your goals should be, well, writing a good story and creating compelling characters.”

Some examples that I think prove his point:

The Witcher setting draws very heavily from medieval history and fairy tales to provide the core of its narratives. We don’t read those novels because we’re looking for a completely innovative setting; we read them because Geralt and his companions are interesting characters and the stories they find themselves within are fascinating and entertaining. Those stories benefit from their groundedness in the pseudohistoricity of the setting.

Abercrombie’s First Law setting likewise draws upon historical analogues (though not necessarily to the same extent as The Witcher) to build the setting (and quickly clue the reader into it). Angland has its roots in England (obviously) and in Norse/Germanic cultures. The Gurkish Empire finds its footing in the historical Muslim (and particularly Ottoman, I think) states–though this footing either purposefully draws upon some Western romantic (I hesitate to use that phrase because the Western romanticism of the Near East is rarely positive) or it curves in that direction because of the narrative and setting itself. I don’t want to imply any judgment there, because I don’t think there’s an agenda behind Abercrombie’s choices except to write compelling fiction. Styria has, of course, the feel of Renaissance Italy.

Tolkien drew heavily upon Anglo-Saxon culture for the Rohirrim (it was his academic specialty, after all).

Brandon Sanderson’s feruchemy, allomancy and hemalurgy are so fascinating precisely because they contrast so starkly with Western historical magical ideas (and thus what we typically expect in Western fantasy fiction), while Jim Butcher uses those same ideas (the historical Western ideas about magic) as a starting point to establish depth and interest in his urban fantasy, The Dresden Files.

In roleplaying games and in speculative short fiction, the use of close adherence to historical analogues can quickly establish setting, useful for getting an unfamiliar audience invested quickly. John Wick’s roleplaying games 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings are prime examples.

All of this is to say that you should beg, borrow and steal from real-world examples to build your fictional worlds. Just do so thoughtfully and intentionally and you’ll be held in good stead, no matter how much you eventually veer from the “source material.”

The Top-Down Approach
The Top-Down Approach suggests that you start with the general, the big ideas of the setting, and work your way down to the details based upon those big ideas. This approach works well for fiction writers, where the setting ought to be considered in relation to the kinds of stories you want to tell, to the themes and motifs of the works you’re considering, and to the sort of atmosphere you want to establish for your audience.

No approach to worldbuilding is without its disadvantages, however. The Top-Down Approach runs the risk of creating generic settings that feel like the two-dimensional facades of buildings on the main street of some theme park–it’s just so easy to rely entirely on historical analogues to provide all of the details. Without reliance on reference to the real world, it can be hard to know where to begin with the Top-Down Approach and easy to end up with contradictory details as you develop different aspects of the setting and bring them together.

The Bottom-Up Approach
In this approach, you start with a limited part of the setting, developing in detail, before using that beachhead as a jumping-off point for expansion into larger aspects of the world. The Bottom-Up method is great for getting stuck right into a story or game–you start with only what you need to get going and add on only when the scope of your narrative needs to expand. There’s a reason that Dungeons and Dragons encourages GMs to create a small adventure setting first (a town or village “hub” with adventure sites in the surrounds) to begin a game. Sometimes you really only need the 2-d facade because all of the story will take place on the main street.

This is easier with writing rather than gaming, where a reader can’t spontaneously decide to peek behind the curtain. But it’s not a bad thing either, because the ability to improvise new setting details (or to offer your players the opportunity to fill in details) can add new and unexpected dimensions to the setting, which is both meaningful and entertaining.

The biggest danger of Bottom-Up creation, I think, is that you end up with a “kitchen-sink” setting, where everything needs to be pigeonholed into the setting somewhere (I’d argue that this is the case with D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting) so that the world feels more like a theme park than a living, functioning, believable world. As a corollary to that, if you have multiple Bottom-Up aspects developed concurrently before moving to higher-level issues, you end up with a mish-mash of ideas instead of a cohesive setting with central themes and ideas. I don’t mean to say that that’s wrong–our own world has no clear cut definitions of what it means, so there’s realism to be found there as well. But in terms of narrative, having cues about what you’re about (or what your setting’s about, anyway) can be helpful.

A Third Way
Now for my own point: (not the) third way for worldbuilding. We’re going to use archaeology as our analogue here (hence my calling this the “archaeological approach,” of course). When archaeologists are excavating a site, they first set up a marked grid so that the location of each object found can be carefully recorded as they go. A single archaeologist can only work in one cell of the grid at a time, but a useful interpretation of the site only develops as multiple cells are excavated. The interpretation the archaeologist had after excavating area A1 may change dramatically after excavating cell D4, so she may need to go look at A1 again to rework her thoughts. Eventually, a cohesive interpretation of the whole will develop, but only as different cells are examined over time.

The same occurs between different archaeological sites. What is discovered in one place might drastically change the interpretation of an earlier-excavated site. And, good archaeologists leave parts of the site unexcavated and preserved for future scholars, who will arrive to continue the work armed with more sophisticated tools and, hopefully, knowledge about the site and culture being investigated that the earlier archaeologists didn’t have.

Okay, this is essentially nothing new–my point is that the art of worldbuilding shouldn’t be simply top-down or bottom-up; it’s a back and forth, a jumping around–the assembly of a puzzle rather than the construction of a building. “Top-down” and “bottom-up” are merely constructs for discussing the art of worldbuilding anyway; I seriously doubt that most worldbuilders engage solely in one method, or even in a dogmatically rigid sequence of building a setting. I certainly don’t. You have to use what works best for you: your personality, work habits and creative style. I’ll follow this with some concrete tips that have worked for me.

Tips for the “Archaeological Approach”

1. Always be ready to change what you’ve established in light of new “discoveries.”
This is one of the most effective tools for originality in a setting and one of the most rewarding aspects of worldbuilding (at least when done for its own sake). This is very much like discovering new things about your characters or plot when writing a novel. In worldbuilding, as you add details to the history, geography and cultures of your world, you’ll start to have little epiphanies about the consequences of those choices or contradictions between details that develop because of them. If you’re consistently ready to take those developments and go back through what you’ve established, metaphorically ironing out the kinks, the setting will begin to develop in some unexpected ways that add depth, detail, and verisimilitude. I believe I’ve said before in a different post that my favorite thing about Max Brooks’ book World War Z is how, if you can just suspend belief for the zombies, the stories and political events that the novel describes make logical sense based on real-world political realities and history. The more places someone investigating your settings says, “Aha! X happened because of Y and Z,” the more immersive and believable your setting becomes, no matter how fantastic.

2. Put pins in things.
To try to maintain flow in the process of worldbuilding, try to avoid letting yourself get hung up on details that you’re not ready to fill in yet. Some examples, if you’re working through your setting’s history and a new nation crops up, don’t feel like you have to go define that nation’s culture and separate history right away. Put a pin in those subtopics and continue working on the task at hand.

For me, this helps in two ways: First, it helps me to stay efficient, focusing my efforts where I’m ready to make good use of my time instead of following rabbit trails that I’m not mentally prepared for. Second, when I do run into writer’s block in my current task, it gives me ready alternatives to shift to so that I can continue making useful worldbuilding efforts instead of having to put the whole thing down for a while to let it sit.

This works both for details and–especially–for names. If I don’t have ready names in hand when I come to a new character or place in Avar Narn, I tend to change my font to bold (so that I remember I need to come back to the detail) and put a shorthand description of the thing in brackets so that I can keep going with the narrative.

3. Keep lists.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m too tired or distracted to have the mental wherewithal to conduct some serious worldbuilding, but I want to do something useful to keep progress going. I’ll play around with an online name generator, taking the output and modifying it into names I like or that I think would have a place in one of Avar Narn’s languages. I’ll make lists of interesting cultural oddities, quirks or nuances that I might be able to “plug into” a culture as I’m developing it, speeding along the development of granularity of detail. Hell, I’ll make lists of topics I need to develop, so that when I’m feeling creative (or sitting myself down to be creative–damn how I feel about it!), I have options in front of me so that I can select the one that most appeals at the time and get straight to it.

4. Be Able to See the Forest.
Organizing your work is essential in worldbuilding. If you don’t, you’ll lose details altogether or have to rework some of the work you’ve already done to account for them. More important than that, though, is the ability to take a quick high-level approach to see how things are fitting together. How developed is your setting at this moment? Are you working on helpful details or just adding more to the setting that may never come into play? If you’re worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake–and I think it is a worthwhile exercise even if you never plan to do anything with your setting–this doesn’t matter so much. But if you’re developing a setting for a roleplaying game or for fiction and you’ve got some extrinsic or intrinsic deadline for kicking off the game or writing, you want to be able to make sure you’re not spending in the weeds–naming that delicious pie shop at the end of the world your characters will never visit.

Overall, I mean to say that you should be able to move into a temporary top-down approach when that suits you.

5. Be able to see the trees.
Modern historians no longer view history as a collection of the exploits and ideologies of the elite–they rightfully recognize that most events have multiple confluences of causes that come together to trigger them in a particular place and time. Looking at the finer details allows you to make larger-scale choices that seem to flow naturally and consequentially from those smaller choices.

In other words, be able to move into a bottom-up approach when useful.

6. Be a sponge.
Samuel Johnson said, “Never trust a man who writes more than he reads.” Fair point.

Soak up all the information you can: about how the world works, about how people work, examples of real-world history and culture, etc., etc., ad nauseam. If you accept as true that human creativity is a matter of rearranging the blocks we already have into new structures, put as many different blocks in your toy box as you can. But, don’t let sponging up knowledge be all that you do. This is an excuse I often use myself; I’ll tell myself I’m sponging up information right now, and when I have enough, I’ll get back to the worldbuilding. There’s never enough, so use what you have even as you’re getting more.

Conclusion
I won’t say that there are “a lot” of worldbuilding books out there, but there are a few. I personally find them useful for providing with checklists of things to think about as I’m building my world, but I’ve never found any of them to be a panacea or ready guide to doing the damn thing.

In my mind, worldbuilding is and should be an organic process, difficult to predict in its details or course, much less in its results. It’s a journey you have to walk, not an engineering plan to rigidly follow. Your experience may differ vastly, of course.

As a final thought, lest you think that I am blind to the downsides of the approach I’ve argued for in comparison to top-down and bottom-up methods: this organic, back-and-forth approach of worldbuilding is time-consuming and risks becoming the object in and of itself. If you’re worldbuilding for the sake of it, that’s not a problem. But if you have purpose(s) in mind for your setting once it’s “ready,” remember that at some point you’ve got to start actually running that RPG or writing that novel.

Things Unseen (Working Title) Excerpt, Chapter 18

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

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

Things Unseen, First Draft, Chapter 18

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

Nano-Update: Final!

It is finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nano-Update 3

I’m in the home stretch. As of this post, I’m at 40,588 words written, and that’s still after having some of my worst days writing this NaNoWriMo (one dismal 600-word day and an 1100 word day this week).

At my current average pace and goal, I’ll finish by the 20th or 21st. With NaNoWriMo at least. More and more now, though, I’m thinking about the goal of having the whole thing finished, in first draft, before the end of the year. If I can keep up this pace, I can do it. As I’ve mentioned, it’s looking like the novel will be somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000 words when finished, so that gives me somewhere between 35 and 47 days to the end of the novel. As of today, there are 44 more days in the year.

I worry about keeping up that pace, though. I’m worried that I’ll do the same thing I do when I’m running–I’ll push too hard to fast and then tire myself out early and be unable to run the entire distance I’d planned for. I’m not a distance runner by any means (and I like having run much more than I like running), and I’d like to think that I’m a much better writer than runner (certainly I write much more consistently than I run), so maybe this isn’t the best analogy. But, having not attempted to write at this pace for that long before, its the uncertainty that threatens. Isn’t that always the way of things?

On the other hand, though, there’s a part of me that thinks that maybe this pace is relatively easily sustainable. The goal I’ve been setting for myself is to write 2,700 words per day, and I’m hitting that more days than I’m not. It’s been taking me about two hours to hit that word count when I’m focused, and I’m finding it a bit easier to focus each time I sit down to write.

What’s more, I’m finding that, at the conclusion of a session, I still want to write. I often want to work on some side project rather than continuing the novel, some of which will make their way to the blog in the near future, I’m sure, but I don’t feel that my creative juices are exhausted at the end of a session. I’d almost equate that feeling to the runner’s high–it’s a damn good feeling.

Of course, trying to maintain this pace likely means fewer posts on the blog until I finish that first draft, so I’ll beg your forgiveness in advance.

On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly requested readers for the novel-in-progress, so if you’re just dying to read something of mine in the meantime, you have that option!

If you’re a fellow NaNoWriMoer, I wish you the best of luck. Put up a comment and let me know how you’re doing and how you feel about it!

Nano-Update 2

It’s 10:45 am on Sunday morning. I’m at home while K and little Marshal are at church; Hawkwood has been sick the past few days and is, thankfully, resting comfortably at present.

Writing has been good. I’m now at 27,293 words and beginning to focus more on my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the year than the fifty-thousand-word goal of NaNoWriMo, which now seems like it will not be any issue. This is nine-and-a-half chapters into a text that is plotted to forty-something chapters, so I’m also feeling pretty good about the likely end length.

Also, I have a (very early) working title: Things Unseen.

What’s more, I’m finding the writing easier. I’m averaging about 2,700 words in two hours of writing each day, and that feels very sustainable. The first time I did NaNoWriMo, I finished, and early, but I seem to remember having a tougher time dragging out the words and spilling them onto the page, spending more time in the writing altogether, and more of that time frustrated.

I’m still having the ups and downs of going from “I’m a brilliant writer!” to “This is crap, why am I spending my time on this!” but I’m more comfortable with the struggle than I have been. I’m learning to forgive myself (and my writing) a little bit more. The biggest part of that is rejecting the myth that brilliant writers get it right the first time, can write something down once and be done.

Some of the things I write do feel really good in the first draft (hence the highs), but I’m reminding myself that writing a novel is a long journey and there’ll be a lot to clean up, rewrite, rework and improve on subsequent passes through the manuscript. In some ways, it’s like a sculpture. At first, I’m getting the general shape of things, the suggestion of the lines and contours of what I’m chiseling away at. But there will be additional sessions necessary to bring all the details into focus and then to smooth the lines so that everything flows together as it should. I’m becoming comfortable with that idea. This is also helping to put me in the mindset that writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. Pacing myself is important, which is why I haven’t been pushing to write more faster given that I’m at a pace that is good, comfortable and sustainable.

Another influential factor is accepting the fact that I have to write. It’s just part of who I am. Yes, I very much want to write things that are good, that people want to read, that give me a way to send my voice, ideas and stories to thousands of people are more. I want to write things that would allow me to be a writer, full-time. But those desires are not the point. I write now because I must; because I’m not me–and I’m not happy–when I don’t. Even if it doesn’t turn out as well as I hope, it’s still mine, part of me in an essential way.

So far, so good, but we’re only ten days in. We’ll see if I still feel the same about the pace and sustainability next week.

Who else out there is participating in NaNoWriMo? I’m sure some of the people who read my blog are. Let me know how you’re doing! And, if you’re brave enough to read along with my first draft and want to give me some feedback, please reach out! You can email me at FaithFictionFatherhood@gmail.com.

Nano-Update 1

Three days in to NaNoWriMo 2019 and I have 10,443 words in the bag, which is almost my first four chapters done.  It’s been about 2 hours a day to hit that pace, which I’m extremely happy with. If I could find time to keep that pace and write three or more hours a day, I’d be very satisfied. Alas, so far I have not been able to achieve that.

I’m trying not to self-edit too much in this first-draft run through so that I can focus on getting the complete story to paper (or screen, as the case may be). I can clean it up after the first draft is done, and since that will be unavoidable, no sense trying to forestall it by editing as I go. Still, sometimes I can’t help myself.

If I can sustain this writing pace, then I can reasonably expect to finish the novel by the end of the year. It’s plotted at about fifty chapters, so I’m expecting somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000 words when finished. Any more than that, and I’ll have to seriously take the scissors to parts of it. Yes, A Game of Thrones is 298,000 words, but I’m not going to pretend I’m Martin on the first go-round. Not from a writing standpoint and not from a marketing standpoint.

Nevertheless, I’m finding relatively few moments when I’m stymied about what to write next, which is new for me. Hopefully it keeps up!

If you’d like to read the first chapter, click here. If you’d like to be a reader and journey along with me as I write, please be in touch!

NaNoWrimo 2019 – First Chapter

As a little taste of my NaNoWriMo 2019 project (still untitled), I’m posting the short introductory chapter (in first draft and unedited) here. Hope you enjoy!

 

One evening in the month of Tengas, by the Ealthen Calendar, when the nights remain hot even under the moons, I found myself on the road from my home in Ilessa to the castle-town of Vaina at the southwestern end of the Nysas Hills. Some acquaintances I’d made in the Old City had asked me to visit their brother Aryden, lord of their house, at their familial holding. Brother and sister—after several glasses of wine—whispered to me that their home had become haunted, that their brother’s wife in particular suffered greatly at the hands of some undiscovered spirit.

Knowing my profession—if it can truly be called that—they’d asked if I might see what I could do to remedy the situation. I proved reluctant until they assured me that my efforts would be well rewarded; I had heard that the amn Vaina family enjoys great wealth. Were it not for my habit, I could live simply and not hurdle headlong into the sort of otherworldly dangers to which my erstwhile friends had directed me. What habit is that, you ask? Books, of course. Even those from the printers are expensive enough, but the ones that hold the greatest interest for me cannot be found in print; they must be discovered and transcribed by hand.

And so, I held a minor incantation alive in my mind, softly illuminating the well-trod dirt path with preternatural light, nudging my borrowed horse along carefully, lest an injurious misstep cost me more than the value of the job before I’d even arrived. Windborne, my mount had been named. Once, perhaps, she had been fast enough to earn such a name. Now, though, only her ambling gait recommended her to me.
In the nearing distance, the firelights of the small castle-town of Vaina shone like a beacon, the fortress itself glowing on the hill above the nighttime fires of the town below. Food, though now only as hot as the air around me, waited for me there, and wine for the frustrations of the road.On these things I thought as Windborne plodded along only slightly faster than I could’ve walked, and I returned my eyes to the ground to watch her hooves.

In my reverie I’d not noticed the two men stepping onto the path before me until one of them cleared his throat, startling Windborne ever so slightly, I imagined that, dulled with age as her senses were, there was little she perceived clearly enough to find truly terrifying.

Men who greet a traveler in such a way have only one thing in mind, and I should’ve known to pay better attention on the road.

“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to travel the road alone?” asked the first man?

“Especially at night,” the second added.

Desperation marked every aspect of the mens’ appearance, from the travel-stained and road-worn clothes to the small patches of rust marring their drawn steel, poorly-crafted falchions better suited to chopping wood. But I’d seen men killed by far less, and the two carried themselves with confidence enough that I believe that they’d put their blades to nefarious use before.

A scraggly beard partially covered the pock-marked face of the first man, middle-aged and possessed of the sort of sinewy muscles that speak to service as a soldier or farmer, hard work with meager returns. Hard living had likewise ruddied the flower of the youth of the first man’s teenaged companion; dark circles around the boy’s eyes and cracks at the corner of his mouth told the all-too-common-tale of hornroot use.

“Highway robbery’s a pretty dangerous pursuit as well, I hear,” I told them, casually, hoping nonchalance covered over the disquiet in my mind. “You never know who you’re going to chance across. A wandering knight of legend, some noble’s assassin, bounty hunters, a thaumaturge.”

With the last words, recognition dawned upon the faces of the two bandits as they realized that they could not identify a natural source of the light that currently illuminated us. “Fucking witch,” the first one said.

“I think they call the menfolk ‘warlocks,’” the younger man corrected, earning a sidelong glance from his elder.

“Not in the Sisters,” I said.

“We ain’t in the Sisters, is we? We’re in the heartlands here, where the true and honest folk live. Those who fear the One as they should. Those who wouldn’t dream of doing the Evil One’s bidding with sorceries and mutterings and the like.” This from the older fellow.

“Two birds, one stone, innit?” The companion added. “Do a service for the One by killing us a warlock, and I bet he’s got some good shit to sell, too. And a horse.”

“Two birds with one stone? A trivial matter. Perhaps you’d like to see how two stones are killed with one bird?”

Almost simultaneously, they cocked their heads at me, like puppies trying to sort out something new. Given that precious-short pause, I split my mind between the effort of maintaining the thaumaturgic ball of light and weighing my options. With a quick sorcery, I could turn the illumination into a brief flare, blinding, or at least distracting, the men and galloping past them in their confusion, but the ensuing dark would leave me barreling blindly into the darkness at as least as much risk as standing still. I could draw the sword that hung languidly at my side: a thin, quick blade in the Altaenin style equally suited to cut and thrust, equally at home in the duel or on the battlefield. I have some skill in its use, to be sure, but two against one are never fair odds regardless of skill. Even if I managed to fell one of them quickly, his friend would likely injure me as I did so. Once cut, I’d have little chance of straight-on success with the survivor. I needed something better than violence.

So I released the incantation of light, letting its structure fall to nothingness in my mind, the ghostly illumination returning to darkness as I did. For a brief moment, we squinted at each other, waiting for our eyes to adjust; clouds had obscured the moons above and little light reached the darkened Avar through them. In that time, the darkness proved a friend.

I squeezed my legs delicately to urge Windborne to step slowly backward, creating some distance against my would-be robbers in case my ruse failed. And then I began to chant loudly, my voice booming with feigned wrath as I shaped nonsense words bereft of the Power or any chance to effect change in the world outside of me. It was an idle threat, to be sure, but with the fatigue of the road upon me, not to mention my inability to see the foes in front of me, I dared not call upon some working lest it fail miserably and make a difficult situation worse. Even if successful, my inability to control the Flux bleeding off of the working might accomplish something I hadn’t imagined—and wouldn’t welcome.

I settled on the blind bluff, chanting louder and quickening my rhythm, allowing my own nervousness to interject a reckless passion into the manufactured syllables. A lack of confidence in my trick drove my hand to the hilt of the blade; useless as it might actually have been, it at least provided a false sense of comfort. When my eyes had finally adjusted to the dark of the night, I could not make out the robbers on the road.

The movement of two dark shapes, pushing through the tall grass on the left side of the road, caught my attention. Smiling to myself, I ceased my babbling, remaining still to listen as the men’s grunts and their rustling in the underbrush faded into imperception.

Thinking it best not to reignite my thaumaturgic lamp, I dismounted, leading Windborne the rest of the way by her bridle, testing each step along the way with my own feet, adjusting for the rises and falls of the trail, circumnavigating the rocks embedded in the path. This made for slow going, but Windborne didn’t seem to mind. I could feel the pulses of air from her nostrils on my hand, beating out our marching time like some invisible drum. The sensation might have annoyed me under other circumstances, but the draining of adrenaline from me left me giddy, the night smelling sweeter than before and my feet feeling light along the path.

Midnight must have come and gone by the time I reached the outermost buildings of Vaina, the limits of the newer portion of the town that had sprung up on the wrong side of the fortress’s wall. Judging by the age of some of the buildings, this “newer” part of the town might itself be several centuries old.

NaNoWriMo Eve

I’ve mentioned before that I have a (probably unrealistic) goal of finishing a first draft of a novel I’m working on by the end of the year. If you’ve been following the blog for a while, this is not the same novel I was working on the last time I did National Novel Writing Month (hence NaNoWriMo)–I will return and finish that novel, but not yet.

The novel I’m currently working on is, of course, set in my Avar Narn fantasy setting; it is a noir-ish story following a thaumaturge’s investigation of a haunting in the castle of the town of Vaina inland from the Seven Sisters (seven major cities on an island in the central sea famous for their independence, importance to trade, intrigue and “loose morals”). Our protagonist, Iaren, hails from one of the Sisters, Ilessa, and finds himself in a very different world in the noble estates that fill the interior of the island. He’s in a race against time before the haunting drives the Lady amn Vaina to death or insanity in a town where everyone has a secret to keep. It’s a little bit Dresden Files mixed with the grit of Joe Abercrombie or Glen Cook, some of the intrigue of Scott Lynch and a developed magic system much more “traditional” than Sanderson’s feruchemy and allomancy, but just as detailed.

I’m excited to write it and have high hopes that it will turn out to reveal that I’m a pretty skilled writer of fantasy fiction after all. Of course, it will surely need a good bit of work after the first draft, but I’m optimistic and that’s better than the alternative!

Practically speaking, here’s where I’m at: I’ve got a pretty detailed plot outline for the entirety of the novel, though there are still some details I haven’t fully resolved. I’m having to replot the last several chapters to adequately close what could be plot gaps and have the major issues tied up at the end (though I’m a believer that not everything should be satisfactorily concluded by the end of a novel–it never is in life). I’m currently importing my outline notes from Word into a fresh Scrivener project (after doing my initial work in a different Scrivener project and then using Word for the separate detailed outline; that’s not the most efficient way to do things, I know, but it kept me more in the flow).

So, my prep is not as complete as I’d like it to be (I let myself get distracted by other projects this month), but it’s good enough to instill confidence. We’ll see how it goes.

If there’s not much posted on the blog over the next month, it’s because I’ve got nose to grindstone on the novel; my apologies in advance. I further apologize that this means you’ll have to wait for the rest of my series on running piracy games in Fate Core (if that’s something you’re eagerly anticipating).

If, dear readers, you might be interested in reading along as I write and providing some continuing feedback, I could certainly use a few people to look over my shoulder and see things I might not. Send me a message and we’ll sort out logistics–it would mean a lot to me, and be exceptionally motivating, if some of you journey with me.

What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part VI: Reading Recommendations and Conclusions

Reading Recommendations:
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, Sydney Anglo
Records of the Medieval Sword, Ewart Oakeshott
The Art of Sword Combat: A 1568 German Treatise on Swordsmanship, Translation                      of Jaochim Meyer by Jeffrey Forgeng
The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: Royal Armouries MS I.33, another Jeffrey                              Forgeng translation
Sigmund Ringeck’s Knightly Art of the Longword, David Lindholm and Peter Svard
Master of Defense: The Works of George Silver, by Paul Wagner
How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots,                   Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves and Braggarts, by Ruth Goodman (the chapter               on violence has some great social context about swashbuckling, the rest of the                     book is also great fun)

Film: Believe it or not, Star Wars, Episode III, has some of the best swordplay in film (the move where Anakin cuts off Dooku’s hands looks like it could have come straight out of a fight manual), though it should be noted that the Germanic longsword style is probably not the best way to employ a weapon that only needs to touch its target to cause serious wounds–a more subtle system would probably be warranted.

The film, The Duellists, with Harvey Keitel and David Carradine, has some pretty good moments as well. Although well outside our period, the TV show Black Flag has some decent swordplay in it, and a generally excellent depiction of the tactics and combat techniques of early 18th-century pirates. Unfortunately, I can think of more cringeworthy examples of swordplay in film than good ones.

RPGs: If you want an RPG that realistically treats medieval/Renaissance combat in all its glory and detail, then you need to look at The Riddle of Steel by Jake Norwood and Driftwood Studios (now out-of-print and the publishing company defunct, I believe). Norwood in addition so other applicable background experience, was (may still be) a (very talented) member of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. I got to spar with him once, more than a decade-and-a-half ago at this point, and found him to be both a fierce fencer and a gracious person.

The Riddle of Steel has a very cool system for combat that focuses on character skill but also accounts for various advantages and disadvantages in weapon selection. It’s been more influential on my own thoughts on game design for other reasons (its Spiritual Attributes are a really cool idea), but as a younger gamer, I loved the combat system, running games set in Avar Narn and the Warhammer Fantasy setting (the latter of which was a particularly good marriage of rules and setting). Now, I prefer more streamlined rules, with my knowledge of fighting techniques influencing narration more than mechanics.

There are two sucessor systems to TROS that I’m aware of: Blade of the Iron Throne, which ports the rules into a more sword & sorcery system, and Song of Swords, which I believe just published after the wait following its successful kickstarter. I haven’t checked it out yet.

Another gamer and member of the historical martial arts community built a large rules mod for the 3.5 Edition of D&D called Codex Martialis, that brings a lot of the ideas from TROS into approximated usage with the d20 system. I haven’t gone back to look at how much work it would take to port this over to the Fifth Edition (likely a rewrite of the Fighter class at a minimum), but it might be worth investigating if you or your players don’t want to leave D&D but want to find some ways to put the ideas in this series into mechanics. I personally think that d100 systems like Mythras probably provide the best middleground, but I’m personally not a huge fan of d100 systems either (picky me!). though Mythras may be my favorite of them.

Some Thoughts About Swordplay in RPGs
Following on my recommendation of The Riddle of Steel and its successors, I want to share some personal thoughts on using knowledge about swordplay in RPGs. Given my preference for simple and quick-moving RPG systems (at present I’m even thinking of laying the complexity of my in-progress Avar Narn RPG system aside for a customization of Fate to the setting), I actually don’t think that much needs to be done mechanically in an RPG to capture realistic swordplay.

That is not to say that nothing should be done. The bare minimum, as GM or player, is to get a grasp of swordplay (and hand-to-hand combat in general) so that you can describe your combats well–make them exciting and interesting with realistic detail and flow that helps to hold the attention of the players.

If you want to do more than that, then you’re talking about making some assumptions about theme and setting. A realistic treatment of swordplay means genuinely dangerous combats that don’t typically last very long. Not every fight will end in death and large-scale dismemberment, though. Here’s a thought to drive that home: it takes about 8 pounds of force to pull an ear off. How many people really want to keep fighting when someone just ripped their ear off? Probably not the majority.

Permanent/lingering wounds and a real possibility of character death will achieve this, but give rise to additional necessary considerations. You need to do one (or more) of three things: (1) give players access to improved healing (and perhaps resurrection) through the setting, (2) ensure that there are mechanical “meta” mechanics for preventing character death (hero points, Edge, whatever you’d like to call it and/or (3) get their buy-in about character death and setting lethality before play begins.

There are, I believe, some important mechanical considerations to a game with realistic combat. I really believe that a bell curve system of task resolution is best, because predictability of outcome will be a huge benefit to players and characters when they must choose whether or not to fight. A bell curve maintains the possibility that an inexperienced person will get lucky and kill a skilled combatant, but it also means that a skilled combatant fighting an untrained person will usually result in a beatdown. This, I think is realistic. I believe that a dice pool system is potentially serviceable, as you get diminishing returns as difficulty decreases (the more important part of the bell curve), but the mechanic with a Gaussian distribution will be better in the end.

If you want to take things further, damage inflicted in combat derives more from the skill of the attacker than the weapon used–in the right hands and the right situation, a dagger may be deadlier than a sword or polearm. Weapons, then, should likely give some advantage on attack tests when they would reasonably offer the combatant advantage over his foe rather than setting the range of damage he does.

Shields should be treated as weapons, not armor, because that’s what they are. Yes, they are weapons better suited to deflecting enemy blows, but they may still be used to push, bash and strike with both the shield face and the edges of the shield. A buckler, in essence, is an armored fist.

Combined with all of the above, fighting ability should probably be skill-based and not level-based. That’s debatable, of course, since levels arguably represent the experience and veterancy of a character, but surviving fights long enough is not the sole determiner of whether a character will “git gud.”

As you can see, all of this militates against D&D for the system to use if you want to run games with realistic combats–or much realism at all, I’d argue. A game where a character can survive a direct hit from a fireball or lightning strike just doesn’t lend itself to verisimilitude. I’d reiterate that that does not make D&D bad/wrong; it’s just a very different approach to RPGs than a gritty and realistic system and the availability of a variety of approaches to our games is a wonderful thing.

I will warn, from my own experience, however, that attempting to modify the D&D system into something that effectively captures some verisimilitude in its combat requires such sweeping changes to both mechanics and assumptions of the system as to be an exercise in futility. That way lies madness.

I’d also say that gritty and deadly doesn’t necessarily mean the “low fantasy” genre, though I see in both literature and games a strong correlation between the two. I would not describe my own setting, Avar Narn, as low magic, but I would certainly argue that it’s gritty.

Conclusion
My argument here is not for the primacy of historically-based realism in fiction and fantasy roleplaying–these media are far too broad to allow such an oversimplification and there are many competing goals in our fictional pursuits over verisimilitude. I do intend to argue, though, that an understanding of the historical basis is a benefit to anyone who devotes the time to it, because that understanding gives you power to manipulate the feel, genre and themes of your setting intentionally rather than wondering in blind.

The less realistic the combat, the more legendary (in the literary sense) and mythopoeic a story or game will feel, and that’s an opportunity to exploit just as the opposite is.

I hope that this series has given you something to mull over, some new opportunities to explore and consider as you create settings and mechanics for your own fiction or games. The rest, as they say, is up to you.