ENGLISH PATIENCE

“And then what happened?”
“Well, there were quite a few internet petitions, let me tell you. Everyone was signing them. Some of them got a lot of votes. There were some really funny memes. Proper biting and critical. Satirical even. The newspaper cartoonists had a field day as well. Real state-of-the-art stuff. And the comments sections! I mean, we know comments sections are bad but gosh. It was like a civil war had broken out on Facebook and YouTube except it was people at keyboards typing angry slogans at each other rather than people with guns shooting each other.”
“Did that work?”
“It wasn’t just petitions and memes! There were also some demonstrations. I lot of people went to London and marched on Parliament with placards – some of them were really funny and satirical. There were some great pictures of them and of the thousands of people all demanding that things be other than they were. I lost count of how often Johnson, May, Corbyn, Farage, Cameron and the rest were burned in effigy. There were even some balloons.”
“Did that work?”

“Of course there weren’t 18 million people or anything, so it was easy to just ignore them. But Known Liar Boris Johnson gave some super speeches, and so did a bunch of other ineffectual politicians whose names are now largely lost to history. There were some really quotable sound bites. Of course with Johnson being a Known Liar it was hard to take him seriously, but you have to understand that quite a few people wanted it to happen so…”

Grandad shrugged, spreading his hands expressively to demonstrate that it was really beyond anyone’s control

“So none of this worked then? It was all just a lot of angry people shouting while everything inevitably just happened? Wow, your generation really fucked up didn’t they”
“Shut up and eat your roast dog.”

Why Bother?

Guest post time. This one came pretty much out-of-the-blue. You may recognise the award-winning Clare Evans from the recent articles about the Fairyland game she ran. She’s also one of the Empire game team, with responsibilities that include running about half the game – especially the parts of it that involve interfacing with the punters. Here she’s writing about the crap painful jobs – upholding equality and diversity and such – and why she bothers to do them.

I get asked by people quite regularly why I am involved in the shit bits of LRP and the conduct and equality stuff. This is pretty much exclusively by people who care about me and I appreciate them asking.

So why?

I’m a die hard liberal snowflake.

Everyone has a right to be themselves without fear of retribution.

I am consumed by Righteous Indignation.

To quote Emma Watson – “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

So how did I get here?

I was the odd kid at school. I was the fat kid who read books and was rubbish at sport. I was the one who lived on a farm outside the village and town and didn’t hang out with everyone else outside school. My Mum is the local do-gooder and my Dad is a defender of the innocent and includes everyone. I was brought up knowing that I could do and be whatever I wanted. Pembrokeshire is pretty straight and white and I’m pretty privileged in my life.

Also I started LRPing at 19. Back in the day the LRP world was even more male dominated, obviously we were still all the outcasts and the massive nerds but still.

I was lucky. I went to my first events as part of a big group of mates. I had plenty of people around me to cushion and protect me. I didn’t drink much at events, there’d been an alcoholic boyfriend in the past and I knew to avoid that. So when I was in the situations where the shit stuff happened I had people who would say “Fuck them, come and do this instead.” The shit stuff happened but I had a support network who supported me. I had the friends who didn’t leave me alone with the creepy guy.

So what about those people who didn’t have that network at events? What about the people who had something worse happen to them and didn’t think they could tell and get support? As I’d been in the hobby for longer, and because people knew who I was, some of them would come to me. I couldn’t do anything about it though. I could only offer sympathy and girl power and swearing into the void.

And I grew up slowly and I read stuff and I talked to people and I learnt and I became more understanding. I’d always been willing to bang my head against the wall in the hopes of getting through it – I once had to explain to my Head of Governors – my mother – that the Games teacher was threatening to sue me for my campaign against gym shorts.

When Empire started I found a place where I was allowed to do stuff to help. In a small way and I found people who wanted to create the place I want to play in and live in. The people who are shits still exist, but these days we’re not just allowed but encouraged to fight that behaviour.  

There’s a vested interest in not acknowledging that stuff happens in our hobby and in our spaces. If we acknowledge that we have to acknowledge our complicity in it. That’s pretty rough. It’s also liberating, I find. I believe firmly that education is the way forward and that we are allowed to have made mistakes – but admitting that and learning from those mistakes is key. 

Some days it’s extra shit, some days we seem to be doing more wrong than right, some days the people who I feel should be on our side just seem to want to beat us down because we can’t make everything good. Those days I want to quit, to say it’s too hard and to leave it be. So I message the people who I fight beside and they tell me why we’re still fighting. Those days I hear another story I haven’t heard before and another reason to fight. Those days the people I look up to support me to carry on.

I know we’re not getting everything right, I know we’re getting some stuff wrong but we’re trying and that’s got to be worth something right?

Still none of this explains why.

I suppose as more of my friends have children and the more I learn the more I want change. If someone ever tells my friends children that they need to wear a shorter skirt to get a skill advantage or give a tent full of men blow jobs to get a thing they want I will raise hell for them, in fact I will raise Hell to make sure that situation doesn’t even exist in the first place.

I want to be the person I needed back then. 

Photo Credit: Beth Dooner

For the Love of Money

The third video in my short “introduction to foreign powers” series is about the Sarcophan Delves. This one is more about the Sarcophan Delves than their involvement in the Empire – a lot of the relationship between the two nations is about trade rather than politics..

You can find the video here. I briefly tried landscape and then got worried and scared and went back to portrait. I’m not a luddite you are. Shut up.

As always, the script is not 100% the same as the words said but its close enough for jazz. I’ve also corrected my Raffonetics writing of the Dutch words to the way they appear on the page because nobody needs to see that.

Overview

The third nation in this short series – the Sarcophan Delves.

Anyway. Sarcophan is south of the Empire and is the nearest of all the major foreign nations – in that its till pretty far away but its closer than either Sumaah or the Commonwralth. It lies south of the Bay of Catazaar, and like the Empire it’s benefitted from a central position on the map of the known world.

Its the rogue of the Great Foreign Nations adventuring party. Its theme is trade, it’s visual influences are hard to pin down by somewhere between fantasy Renaissance Venice. Its language is Dutch.

Sarcophan is a world power that wields its influence through money and through being able to get its hands on things people will pay for. They tend to be fairly up-front about what they want and what they’re prepared to give to get it, and they reserve most of their political maneuvering for other Sarcophan.

So this may be quite short compared to the first two. I apologise in advance for any natuve Dutch speakers listening as I mangle the pronunciation of a few key Sarcophan terms I originally got from Google translate.

The Delves

At the heart of the Sarophan nation is one sprawling city – the Delves themselves. Built across the wide, winding delta of the Umshalla River, this tottering ramshackle city is a great metropolis home to both the wealthiest, and the poorest, people in the world. It’s not all there is to Sarcophan – but its the only bit most Imperial visitors bother to visit.

One of the reasons its ramshakle is that its built in, and out of, the ruins of at least one much older city. The Bedelaar Huisbaas – the beggar kings – own the city and by extension rule the nation. The Bedelaar are the leaders of great merchant families – but those families began as tomb robbers, entrepeneurs, thieves, and bandits who parlayed the wealth stolen from hundreds of ancient tombs into grand fortunes that put the wealthiest guilds of the League to shame.

A relatively young nation – the people who would become the great families of Sarcophan were basically nomadic bandits until around four hundred years ago – the people of Sarcophan see wealth as the highest aspiration; they pursue profit with the same eager zeal that the Empire pursues virtue.

There’s a saying – nobody is native to Sarcophan – which recognises that the nation is a grand melting pot of immigrants, exiles, and even colonists. Some of those newcomers have managed to claw their way up the greasy pole and join the Bedelaar of the older families at the Great Table – I’ll get to that in a moment – where they are enthusiastically welcomed as peers and potential patsies.

Disease is rampant in Sarcophan – which might go some way to explaining why they are so good with herbs and medicine. It also might also explain why a significant portion of the population express the draughir and briar lineages – much more than in the Empire.

Much if Sarcophan is marshy – indeed large chunks of the city itself are flooded or slowly sinking into swamps. Outside the city, there are vast stretches of bos and swamps, disease-filled forests, and lowering dark hills thick with mine workings. Anything of value that can be clawed from the country itself is funneled back to Sarcophan, and then sold to the highest bidder.

Or rather, usually sold to the highest bidder. The Sarcophan aren’t stupid – they know the value of sometimes selling something to you today at a little less than they might get if they sold it to someone else, in the anticipation of making even more money on something they sell you tomorrow.

The Unfortunate

Not everyone found in Sarcophan is technically alive.

The Sarcophan don’t use slaves – but they use something else. The ongelukkig – literally “the unfortunate” – are corpses animated through the arts of the zielenwever (‘soul weavers’). These unliving workers perform tasks too dangerous or unpleasant for human labourers. They aren’t often seen outside the nation, but its believed that some Sarcophan vessels supplement the human oarsmen with ongelukkig rowers.

Many ongelukkig are made from the corpses of the poorest Sarcophan people, who sell their bodies to the zielenwever before they die either to pay off debts, or to provide wealth to their loved ones in the hope they will be able to improve their position. It is considered shameful to be so poor that one has to sell one’s own dead relatives to the zielenwever, but is a common practice among the lowest levels of society.

Other ongelukkig are made from the corpses pulled from the river and the swamps by the corpse-collectors; the zielenwever pay a small bounty for each unclaimed corpse given over into their care.

To call a living Sarcophan ongelukkig is a serious insult; it implies that they are only fit for work more properly done by animated corpses.

The Empire has some interest in how these ongelukkig are created but the zielenwever aren’t particularly interested in sharing their trade secrets – unsurprisingly.

The Tomb Banquet

I mentioned the great table earlier, and its the centrepiece of Sarcophan politics. It’s a literal table, in the highest room of the palace of beggars, and its the heart of the nation. Each of the Bedelaar Huisbaas has a seat at the great table, where the leaders of the nation come together for the tomb banquet, a phrase which has several meanings.

Originally it mean the share of the welath of ruins and tombs claimed by the original settlers – but its increasingly come to mean the monthly meetings of the Bedelaar which coincide with a great feast. Only the wealthiest, most cunning, and most influential families get a seat at the great table, and these days it is rare for a new family to do so without taking out an old family first.

The feast itself is somewhat informal, but is used to discuss trade and to decide on matters that affect the nation as a whole. The bedelaar don’t make many rules – they prefer not to restrict their fellows in the pursuit of wealth – but when they do those rules are taken very seriously.

Three of the seats at the great banquet are not held by members of the great houses. One seat is left empty (for death herself, it is claimed); one is offered to the highest bidder each month at auction; and one is assigned by a public lottery, available to anyone with a silver coin to spend on a ticket.

The tomb banquets are lavish affairs – every great family pays a stipend which is used to secure the finest food, drink, and chefs from around the globe. Cooks, serving staff, and entertainers alike are paid very well indeed and a good showing at the Tomb banquet can see someone set up for life.

But there’s another kind of fine dining that is characteristic of Sarcophan. The other other kind of tomb banquet is the centrepiece of Sarcophan funerals.

The other Tomb Banquet

Every proper Sarcophan funeral includes ritual cannibalism. The body of the deceased is carefully prepared, with multiple dishes being created from the corpse. The funeral itself consists of a feast during which the friends and family of the deceased consume these dishes alongisde the finest food and drink they can afford.

During the meal the living remember the dead person, but they also strive to take some of their strength and character into themselves by eating their flesh.

Dying in a way that does not leave a body behind – or worse, being forced to sell ones body to the soulweavers- is seen as a tragic circumstance by most Sarcophan.

This is the only time the Sarcophan engage in cannibalism – to eat someone outside of a funeral, or to eat a random stranger, is as unacceptable to the Sarcophan as it is to anyone else… more or less. There’s also a drug called Visievlees that starts out with corpses but that’s entirely different.

Anyway this doesn’t prevent a certain ghoulish curiosity on behalf of other nations, but it is rare for an outsider to be invited to partake in a funeral feast, and a high honour.

Religion

On the whole though the Sarcophan aren’t particualrly spiritual, and they’re cheerfully tolerant of any other religions that might turn up as long as they don’t interfere with the practice of making a profit.

Their own religion encourages people to make as much money as possible, to secure a comfortable future for themselves and their family, and to make sure they get a proper funeral so they can enjoy a temporary afterlife in the Houses of Silence.

The better someone did in life – which usually but not always means the more money they made – the longer they get to stay in the Houses of Silence after death, and the higher their status is once they get there. Once your money runs out – metaphorically – you get kicked out of the Houses of Silence and get reincarnated somewhere in the world to start the process all over again.

They’re certainly not dogmatic about all of this – there are a plethora of chruches and temples in the Delves and only the most disruptive are discouraged.

Theres a number of followers of the Way in the Delves for example– made up of Imperial and Sumaah immigrants and local Sarcophan converts – and there are plenty of Sarcophan who have a lot of time for the virtues of Prosperity and Ambition – if perhaps not quite as much time for the other virtues.

Trade with the Empire

Sarcophan merchants have been trading with the Empire for centuries. They mostly turn up at the ports along the Bay of Catazar, unload their ships, load their holds down with Imperial grain, wine, ore, and timber, and disappear again.

Unlike the Faraden they don’t tend to press too far inland – they’re a naval nation as well as a mercantile nation and they prefer to deal with the large coastal settlements. What happens to the goods they deliver is up to the Imperial merchants they sell them to.

They’ve also made several serious trade deals with the Empire.

The best known is probably the Steel Fist – the ilium that goes to the Imperial Orcs is a payment from the Sarcophan Delves they make each season in return for freedom from certain tariffs.

More recently, individual families and guilds have made agreements with different parts of the Empire. The wealthy Vandersaar family provides weirwood each season the Concordium Docks in Cargo; and the influential Kruidenkenner guild of herbalists and apothecaries provides herbs via their warehouses to Crown’s Quay and Meade, and to Iversgaard in Karsk.

Those are just the public, high profile arrangements the Sarcophan have made – they’re also one of the Empire’s primary trading partners and even allowing for the preferential treatment their traders receive in return for providing the Steel Fist they bring in a signifiant amount of money to the Imperial Treasury each season.

The Liberty Pact

Even before the Liberty Pact was suggested, the Sarcophans were not a slave-owning society. To some outsiders it seems odd that a nation so ruthless in the pursuit of profit was averse to using slaves to get it, but the Sarcophan generally considered the use of slaves to be a waste of time andm oney. While some merchants may have become involved in the slave trade their fellow Sarcophan looked down on slavers. As one of their philosophers said “There are few jobs so dangerous, so dirty, so demeaning, that someone will not do them for a silver coin; and I do not need to give anything to a labourer beyond my coin – not housing, not clothing, not food, not drink, nor a funeral.”

When the summit to discuss opposition to slavery was first mooted, the Sarcophan were not particularly optimistic. In the end, they sent a delegate to the Winter Solstice meeting with the Empire, the Commonwealth, the Sumaah Republic, and the Citadels of Axos. They took part in the negotiations, but at the last moment declined to actually sign the pact themselves.

Instead, the Bedelaar Huisbaas passed one of their rare laws and made the ownership or sale of slaves illegal, securing their status as a non-slaving nation.

At the same time, by not signing the Liberty Pact, they were free to continue trading with people who were slave owners – allowing them the best of both worlds and positioning them perfectly to take advantage of the post-Pact world.

With the Pact signed, verious families and guilds from Sarcophan reached out to the Empire with proposals designed to strengthen trading ties between the two nations.

These included various ways the Kruidenkenner could provide more herbs; proposals to trade white granite and weirwood to the Empire; an offer to provide large amounts of white granite to help the Senate toe complete its program of fortifications; and perhaps most ambitiously the establishment of trade enclaves in the League and Varushka that could have significant implications for the Imperial economy.

The Grendel Complication

For the most part, the Sarcophan Delves have avoided any major scandals or friction with the Empire. The one major bone of contention between the two nations arises from their commitment to free trade. Sarcophan merchants make no secret of the fact that they are willing to trade with the nemies of the Empire as they are the Empire itself. It’s just business, after all.

In particular, Sarcophan ships are able to cross the Bay of Catazar unmolested by Grendel pirates – and druing the raid on Dubhtraig at the end of 282YE it was noted that there were several Sarcophan vessels at the docks there.

For their part the Sarcophan pride themselves on their neturality. They don’t pick sides and they have the same attitude to Grendel money as they do to Imperial money – namely that as much of it as possible should be in the pockets of the Sarcophan Delves.

Epilogue

That’s the Sarcophan Delves. A nation that owes more than a little to Ankh-Morpork, Lankhmar, and the films of Peter Greenaway. For now at least they stay pretty neutral in world affairs, and seem mostly interested in opportunities to make both the Empire and themselves as rich as possible.

You can find further details of everything I’ve mentioned here on the main Empire Wiki. A good place to start is anything that is tagged “Trade Winds” and find the section headed “Sarcophan Delves”

Next time I’ll be covering the Commonwealth – the most polite proponents of Total World Domination anyone could ever hope to meet.

Until then: blijf geluk!

Spire, Boxed Text, and Matt Fucking Mercer

This was first posted on my Patreon on the ninth of May.

Box Text

The very first piece of boxed text I ever read out to a group of players is from the Lost City, which remains one of my favourite table-top modules to this very day.

When We All Lived In The Forest And Nobody Lived Anywhere Else

I started with D&D. Not even AD&D. Proper honest-to-goodness D&D. I was living in Holland at the time and a cousin came over to visit. I was about nine. My cousin Andy and I spent a week or so together and he told me about roleplaying games. I was fascinated.

I immediately started making up “story games” with my friends on the school bus. It was incredibly sweet I guess.

My dad managed to pick up a copy of the Expert rules from the PX at an American camp he was visiting to do 80s telecommunications things. It was basically useless. But! Eventually I got a copy of the basic book that made the expert rules work and I never looked back.

My friend Nick (I think that was his name it was nearly forty years ago) was an American at the massive mixed-nation forces school I attended and he had the advantage that – being American – he had all the D&D books. He lent me my first D&D adventure in the hope I would run it for him because even then I was giving off “will DM and enjoy it” vibes.

It was B4 : The Lost City.

Far Out In the Uncharted Backwaters… (A digression about the Lost City)

Man I loved the Lost City.

TheLostCity

Zargon was arguably the first Great Old One I ever encountered. I mean, I didn’t encounter it. I used it to kill teenage D&D players. Which was much cooler.

Still do. It’s cheesy as fuck but it sticks in my memory. It wasn’t just a dungeon bash, it was a dungeon bash with a story.  Drug crazed people in masks lived in a lost city beneath a great pyramid choked with sand. Weird cults occupied a level in the middle of which was a revolving corridor – a freaking revolving corridor! Each level was larger than the last because it was a pyramid. There was the wight of Queen Zenobia and scything blades and a casino and a possessing high-level cleric and an evil curtain.

And under the pyramid a lost civilisation which you could make your own adventures in!.

And right at the very very bottom the cause of all this madness… the demigod Zargon.

My first ever one-eyed tentacled horror in a pool. It’d be another four years before I heard the good word about Cthulhu.

Did I mention I love the Lost City? I feel like it might have left a lasting influence on my development as a gamer, writer, human, whatever.

All Happy Families Are Alike…. (Boxed Text)

The first bit of boxed text I ever read aloud to some players was the introduction to the Lost City. It was followed shortly later by a bit about a dead hobgoblin with a crossbow bolt whose corpse was conveniently wedging the door at the top of the pyramid open.

Over the next nine years or so I read a lot of boxed text aloud to players and then followed it with the inevitable DM’s opening line:  “So what do you want to do?”

Pretty soon though I was doing it by rote and it was sapping the fun out of things a little. Because a lot of boxed text was horrible. A lot of it amounted to little more than “There is a 30 foot by 20 foot room with a table and a chest. There are six hobgoblins, four goblins, and two bugbears here. The room is lit by torches. A tapestry hangs on the wall.”

It didn’t inspire, it made you want to read it in a staccato monotone. You knew that the players would only remember half of it by the time you stopped talking. There was a 50/50 chance at least one member of the party would ignore every word except “hobgoblins” and another 50/50 chance that either nobody in the party would remember that Chekov’s Gun tapestry or someone would absolutely fixate on why the torches were flickering and spend half and hour insisting there must be a secret door because why else mention them?

When I started writing my own adventures I tried writing boxed text but I hated it and quickly gave up. Nobody cared about it, it wasn’t helpful. A friend – I wish I could remember who – introduced me to the idea of just highlighting key words and phrases and making up my own details and I didn’t look back. For years that was how I did things – dump the awful boxed text and just riff off the important details.

It made prepping for sessions easier. Meant you could get to the important bit – statting the encounters – faster.

I pretty much stopped using boxed text entirely in my late teens. I scoffed at how lame it was.

My Favourite Book In All The World Though I Have Never Read It

For the last two decades my tabletop running has switched between the”people do things in places” variety an the more familiar “people go to places to do other people” variety. White Wolf storytelling (bleh still makes my lip curl) and D&D 3.5 and then 4th. I ran other stuff now an again but those were my staples.

By this point I was just putting a few sentences at the start of an encounter or scene to remind me what was going on and trusting to my improvisation to carry me through. I rarely used published adventures for anything other than spare parts. It was alright.

From somewhere I picked up the helpful habit of getting other people at the table to fill in details of scenes. For a while we used a word-jar – every session started with getting the players to write four interesting words on scraps of paper which were added to the word jar. When I wanted a detail that I hadn’t prepared I’d riff off one of the words. I liked it a lot,

Then I started to run low of time/enthusiasm and my tabletop running suffered. It takes time to prep for proper improv descriptions and I was finding it less and less interesting to do so.

Things came to a head about a year or so ago when I started running Blades in the Dark over Discord. Sessions went one of two ways – when I was able to spend three or four hours prepping they went well. When I wasn’t, they dragged a bit.

I stopped running Blades, and started running the tabletop I am currently running which is a lovely atmospheric game called Spire. Written by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor it is a game of urban revolutionary dark elves and it is very good. And I say that as a man who hates elves with a passion.

But I was having the same problem. I was finding it increasingly tricky to evoke a sense of place, a sense of people. It was too static, too “there are six hobgoblins, four goblins, and two bugbears.”

it Was the Day My Grandmother Exploded (Critical Role and Matt Fucking Mercer)

Then almost by accident I watched a few episodes of season two of Critical Role on the YouTubes. I was only half listening. About halfway through the first episode, the DM – Matt Mercer – described a series of circus performances.

It was obvious what he was doing. He was reading boxed text – text he’d written himself. And I was genuinely fascinated. He wasn’t reading verbatim information about “twenty by thirty foot rooms” but he was using it to create a scene and a feel in a way that was heavily performance oriented. I mean the man’s a voice actor, he knows what he’s doing.

But it was the delivery that really caught my attention. He didn’t appear to be improvising these details – he wasn’t having to spend the brain power to make them up. Instead, he could focus on delivery – on drawing his audience (the players) in, entertaining them, and getting them caught up in what he was doing.

Respeck, as the kids probably don’t say.

I immediately saw the advantage – it was a variant on something I used to do for the White Wolf games I’d run, Start each session with a kind of cinematic atmosphere piece, often using flashbacks or cut-aways to other parts of the game that my players technically wouldn’t know about in-character but would set scenes. It was a way of signalling that the session was starting – without the painfully Nordic element of shutting your eyes and taking deep breaths or whatever bullshit White Wolf was suggesting at the time. And a way to remind the players that we were playing a painfully angsty White Wolf game of tragic fate and also katanas.

I’d also been technically using it in live games for a couple decades – using “flavour text” to get players in the mood to play the session or read the Wind of Fortune.

It was also the way he used it – he clearly hadn’t scripted a bunch of stuff but he had some key scenes written down intended to be performed. To weave a story and a scene. That was key I thought – not a bunch of staccato scene descriptions because nine times out of ten that stuff is easy to improvise, but emotive cinematic events.

In The Land of Ingary Where Such Things as Seven-League Boots and Invisibility Cloaks Really Exist…

So I decided to give it a go.

I wrote up a little bit of intro text for the next Spire session. At the start of the session I read it out – my first bit of technically boxed text in years – and it went over well. It was no Matt Mercer extravaganza, but it reminded the players what was going on (more on that later) and it set the scene and the feel for the session.

It was also way less stress than statting monsters or worrying about clue diagrams. I literally wrote it while waiting for a meeting, then edited it in another meeting where someone was talking about budgets. It took about fifteen minutes but at the end it felt – good. I rolled through the session with a confidence I’d been finding a bit shaky for a while. I was in the zone.

And the players (unprompted) said they liked it too.

Sorted. Getting the players in the mood was a bonus but getting myself in the mood was making a better session.

I’ve done a few more experiments since – tonight I ran a session using a bunch of little snippets I’d written up as scene setters and that also seemed to go well. It flowed reasonably fluidly. I didn’t get to use my prepped boxed text intro because the players went straight into the game without needing prompting – but the act of writing and editing it reminded me of the themes I wanted to play with and get me into the zone again. And its not going anywhere – its a scene setter that still works with minimal changes for the next session.

In A Hole In The Ground There Lived a Hobbit (Fucking Matt Mercer)

It doesn’t help that Matt Mercer makes it look effortless. And that he can do accents. I can’t even do my own accent half the time.

But the real reason I’m jealous of Matt Mercer is not his effortless confidence, YouTube channel, rabid fans, or floppy fringed good looks.

It’s that he gets to get round a table with his friends every week and play D&D. And with a gaming group containing several parents, all of us in our 40s, and some of us self-employed people who keep odd hours, scattered around the country… yeah. A weekly game is a good reason to glare at Matt Mercer.

Even if he has helped me be a better DM, and shored up my flagging DM confidence.

The fucker.

Whether I Shall Turn Out To Be The Hero Of My Own Life (Postscript)

I realised while writing this that the epiphany had been staring me in the face for several years without noticing. Fucking Winds of Fortune. Because of the way the wiki works, and because of the formatting, the narrative fictiony bit we put at the top of them all… is in a box. It’s literally boxed fucking text. Which, on the best winds of fortune, helps to create an atmosphere and such. And on the very best winds of fortune, I write it first because it helps enthuse me and get me in the mood for the next bit – the actual Wind of Fortune.

So there’s that I guess.

Eidolon Sky

I very much like the way that Spire adventures are written – lots of characters, places, and events through which you and your players chart a course towards liberating the city (or making everything worse)

Anyway. Thanks for enduring this so far. I’m going to finish with the bit of boxed text I wrote that inspired this rambling piece, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

It took about two minutes to read – I wasn’t interested in a full-on performance it was just about atmosphere and getting people focused on the game. It won’t mean much to you if you’re not familiar with Spire – I’m running a campaign frame/module/whatever called Eidolon Sky with some personal twiddles and the previous session had seen a demonic incursion/terrorist bomb near a shopping arcade. I also wanted to remind the players of a character I’d introduced who clearly has a name and everything.

Plus while writing it I got inspired by the idea of tattoo artists who tattoo things other than themselves – in this case the stone of the city. I might go somewhere with that. Or not.

Hole in the Ground
A hand painstakingly chalking a spiral onto stone.   

Pull back. A black hand, the colour of liquorice. Just emerging from the cuffs are inkmarks – silver and gold that shimmered slightly in the dim light.   

Pull back a little further. A drow on his hands and knees is putting the finishing touches to… whatever it is he is drawing. With a sigh and a groan, the figure stands up – bones cracking – puts their hands on their back.   

Pull back further still. Three other drow are likewise putting the finishing touches to their part of the great white circle that now completely surrounds a hole in the ground. Nearly sixty feet across, if you squint the jagged hole looks almost perfectly circular. The broken edges look as if they were caused by the collapse of the stone around the sides in the wake of whatever disaster caused the collapse. Or perhaps not a collapse. There is no rubble in the hole – only water cascading into it from severed pipes. In time if this is allowed to continue, the hole will become a lake. 

Another drow approaches the priest. A guard captain by his outfit. He looks tired, his armour is scuffed through hard use. It is the same man who spoke to Tyler and Laylah earlier in the night, immediately after the attack. 

“Is that it then?” he asks, his voice low. The priest nods tiredly. 

“This kind of ward does not fade – it’ll remain part of the stone forever.” He unconsciously fingers the tracery of tattooed lines that emerge from the sleeve of his coat. The captain almost seems to be ignoring him despite asking the question, just staring at the hole in the ground. 

“Do you think it’s what they say it is?” asks the priest.

The captain shrugs. Then jerks his head across to the other side of the hole. 

“They’re here. They think its something. That’s good enough for me.” says the captain. 

Pull back a little further, then. Two tall slim figures stand under the shattered roof of Carpenter Market. They seem somehow more real than the shattered shops behind them. They wear stylised outfits, each unique but with a certain suggestion of uniformity. A circle of pale ivory light surrounds them that seems to emanate from nowhere in particular.  They are untouched by the frenzied activity that surrounds them, their masked faces close together as they talk privately. Occasionally one of them gestures.   

Back by the edge of the hole, two drow stand together, each lost in his own thoughts.   

The priest watches a pair of humans trying to shut off the water main to stop precious fresh water being wasted. He yawns, rubbing his eyes – the exertion of his recent endeavour catching up with him.   

The guard captain doesn’t move. He just watches the two aelfir officers, his eyes narrowed. 

Divided by Faith

Yesterday we had The Asavean Archipelagol; today its the turn of the Sumaah Republic. The second in a short series summarising the relations between the Empire and the foreign powers.

You can find the video here. This time I made it with the camera balanced on a solid surface rather than held in my hand, but I seem to have activated some sort of motion tracking feature that means it will still make people seasick. Oh well. Iterative improvement – its the PeeDee way!

Again, the script is not 100% the same as the words said but its close enough for jazz.

Overview

The second nation in this short series – the Sumaah Republic,.

Like Asavea, it lies far to the west of the Empire.

It is the cleric in the adventuring party of the great foreign nations.

Its theme is righteous zeal; its visual influence is central- and southern-america; its language family is that which Wikipedia labels “north Germanic” which we might call “scandinavian” – danish, swedish, norwegian among others.

Sumaah is a world power, an ambitious, proud, vibrant nation that is guided at all levels by fervent belief in the teachings of the Way. Their ultimate goal is to convert every human to the Way, and to stamp out all spiritual beliefs that they consider counter to doctrine. They have been at war with their neighbours for centuries – slowly but surely expanding their Republic through conquest.

That absolute commitment to the way is perhaps the biggest sources of friction between the Sumaah Republic and the Empire. Nothing divides two people like a shared religion, after all.

Before I get into recent history, I’m going to give you a short overview of the nation. Then we’ll get to what this means on the field.

Ancient History

The land of Sumaah is hot, and steamy, full of jungles, and dinosaurs, grand temples, and sprawling pyramid-cities.

Long ago, it was rued by despotic kings supported by a selfish and idolatrous religion and propped up by the satraps of the Asavean Archipelago.

Yet hidden beneath the surface were the seeds of rebellion. Visitors from what would become the Empire found hints of a philosophy very similar to that which underlay their own understanding of the Way, and by sharing their own insights with the unhappy populace they ignited a revolution that saw the kings torn down, the idolatrous temples destroyed, and the satraps sent fleeing back to Asavea with their tails between their legs.

Sick of the excesses of their corrupt leaders, the people enthusiastically embraced the teachings of the Way. This shared faith lead to close ties between Sumaah and the nations of the Bay of Catazar – and eventually with the Empire.

At least at first.

The people of the far-away nation had no interest in joining the Empire, and were denied a place in the imperial Synod – not that they wanted one. Interpretations of Ambition and Pride taught the Summah that looking outside their borders for political or spiritual guidance would be unvirtuous.

This all came to a head in the reign of Empress Anaea; the Republic broke away from the Imperial Synod and excommunicated not only the Throne but all the priests of the Empire. For the next two hundred years, the Republic was technically at war with the Sumaah – but the vast distances involved meant that military conflict was effectively impossible.

In the reign of Empress Mariika, the conflict between Sumaah and the Empire was resolved and trade once again flourished. By that time, the Sumaah had established their own Houses of Virtue, which they considered to be equal in power to the Assemblies of the Imperial Synod.

The Synod, needless to say, disagreed – but as long as discussions were kept away from religious matters, relations between the two nations remained cordial.

The Republic Today

The Sumaah are lead by the House of the People which meets in the grand capital city of Timoj. The representatives are elected by the people, and rule on behalf of the electorate. In practice, Sumaah is a theocracy in all but name however. The Praaaster of the Way have an unlimited ability to veto the decisions of the House of the People in the name of virtue, and regularly advise the representatitves as to the most virtuous courses of action.

The influence of the Houses of Virtue is felt everywhere. While the government creates the law, it is enforced by the religiously appointed Censors under the guidance of the House of Vigilance.

The armies are effectively lead by the House of Courage, while the House of Wisdom is responsible for educating the young and ensuring all written works are truthful.

The House of Loyalty ensures that all elections are scrupulously honest and that all representatives are truly reflecting the wishes of the people who appointed them, while the House of Ambition works tirelessly to help citizens achieve their greatest potential in service to the nation and the House of Prosperity ensures that not only are all citizens clothed, housed, and well fed but that trade within Sumaah and without is conducted in as virtuous a manner as possible.

Finally, the House of Pride enacts foreign policy – a role that includes orchestrating the strategies for the nations crusades aginst the unbeliever nations that surround them.

Imperial scholars believe over the last 400 years the Sumaah have completely absorbed as many as five smaller human nations, converting them to the Way and making them part of the Republic whether the liked it or not.

The only nation they cannot destroy, it seems, is the one they would most like to bring down – the Asavean Archipelago. The Summah despise the Asaveans – both for historic wrongs done to their people when the Asaveans controlled their nation and because everything about their society infuriates and angers the Sumaah. They are heretical blasphemous idolatrous tyrants, in the words of the Sumaah.

While its easy to dismiss the Sumaah as being a facist theocracy, it is a little more subtle than that. The praaaster are motivated by a genuine concern for the spiritual welbeing of their people – and priests who abuse their powers face extremely harsh punishments by their peers. While they appear dour when they visit the Empire, at home they are as exuberant and passionate as the people of the Brass Coast, as fascinated by learning as the Urizen, and as proud of their nation and their people as the most glorious Dawnish troubadour.

The True Way

The Sumaah follow the Way. It’s the only philosophy tolearated in their nation. They share the same doctrines and virtues as the Empire, but where they are distinct is in their absolute intolerance of heresy and blasphemy.

Having decided the Way is correct, they have come to the conclusion that all other beliefs must logically be incorrect – worse that they are dangerous distractions from the virtuous life that all humans should follow.

The Sumaah Synod – the Houses of Virtue – is much more powerful and influential than the Imperial Synod, especially the House of the Way which possesses many of the qualities the Empire would associate with the General Assembly.

It is often surprising to Imperial vitistors that legal powers which in the Empire would rest with the military council, conclave, bourse, or even Senate instead rest with one of the Houses of Virtue.

There are no national assemblies – Sumaah is a single vast sprawling nation after all. The closest one gets are small regional gatherings of priests who discuss judgements and hear criminal cases and the like – under the auspices of the Houses of Virtue.

The Republic is the largest producer of Liao outside of the Empire, although the recipe they use differs from that familiar to their Imperial counterparts. Vinum does not grow well in the steaming jungles of Sumaah and their liao is created from an entirely different plant more suited to the tropical climate – but it is functionally identical in all other respects to that used by Imperial priests. The Sumaah sell their surplus liao to visiting merchants – not only from the Empire but also from the commonwealth, Sarcophjan Republic, and even the Jarmish – although the merchants of that latter nation must now look elsewhere following the Summah embrace of the liberaty pact.0-

War with the Empire

At the end of 379YE the Sumaah Republic delacred war on the Empire after a little over a century of relative peace. They denounced the Imperial Synod as a den of heretics, exiled Imperial citizens in Sumaah lands, and closed the port of Zemeh to Imperial traders.

One of the main reasons given was repeated insults to the Pride of the Sumaah people, especially with regard to the slow progress on an embassy to their nation. Other factors most likely included the at-that-time reasonably good relations with their enemies, the Asavean Archipelago; a number of miscommunications around matters of religion; and the Imperial Synod’s recognition of the first non-human exemplar.

As with the previous war, the conflict was not military in nature. Rather, the Sumaah sent missionaries to other nations where followers of the Way were to be found, denouncing the Imperial Synod as having lost the Way at every turn and creating diplomatic difficulties wherever they could.

The Empire, for its part, did not make a declaration of war of its own – which predictably served to make the Sumaah even more angry.

In Autumn 380YE, the situation became even more complicated. The Imperial Crown – a symbol of Imperial Pridea nd Ambition that had been worn by every Throne since Giovanni – was removed from the Empire by one Guillamo de Tassato of the Printer’s Guild and taken to Sumaah, apparently for safekeeping. As a consequence Imperatric Lisabetta became the first Throne in history not to wear the Imperial Crown.

The Empire for its part largely dismissed the matter of the Imperial Crown – at least in public – which predictably made the Sumaah even more angry.

Then, with little fanfare, the Sumaah declared an end to the war during the Summer solstice 382Ye, following a steady increase in diplomatic relations. They set in motion plans to re-open Zemeh to Imperial traders, and sent diplomats to inhabit the Sumaah embassy in Necropolis.

HOWEVER

That is not to say that they changed their mind about the Imperial Synod. Far from it.

Rather they continued to claim that the priests of the Empire lack the courage of their convictions; that they have sacrificed their spiritual mandate in the service of expediency and selfish political gain. They urged pilgrims across the known world to look to the houses of virtue, not the Imperal synod, for guidane.

They even went so far as to send Sumaah missionaries to the Empire, to openly preach the idea that it is Timoj, not Bastion, that is the true heart of the faith.

Furthermore, the Sumaah still have the Imperial crown, and show no signs of returning it any time soon – claiming they will do so only once the Empire has demonstrated a true commitment to the virtues and doctrines of the Way.

The Tarquinius Problem

During the Summer Solstice 382YE, at the same time as they were delivering the news that the Sumaah had ended their war with the Empire, the emissaries of the Republic excommunicated the Imperial Ambassador to Axos, Tarquinius of Ankarien.

Not only did they announce a writ of excomminication, they then proceeded to enact the liao ceremony of the same name, spilling a significant amount of rich purple liao over the floor of the Senate building before continuing with their formal delegation.

Whatever reasons the Houses of Virtue may have had for taking such a bold step are not common knowledge. Regardless, the Imperial Synod eventually vindicated Tarquinius, and repaired the damage done to Tarquinius’ soul.

Still, this incident demonstrated the growing chasm between Timoj and Basion. The Synod was condemned their Sumaah counterparts for using a writ of excommunication in this fashion, but the Houses of Virtue appear to have simply ignored their criticism.

THE LIBERTY PACT

In some ways, peace with the Sumaah was barely distinguishable from war with the Summah.

Everything changed in the winter of 382YE when, along with the Empire, the Commonwealth, and the Citadels of Axos, the Sumaah signed the Liberty Pact.

The pact created an alliance between the signatories, dedicated to the destruction of the institution of slavery throughout the known world.

The pact required sanctions against nations identified as slavers – but the Sumaah went further, placing full embargos on trade with any nation that keeps slaves including Asavea, Jarm, and presumably smaller nations such as the Iron Confederacy.

But! There is one other problem with the Liberty Pact and that is the matter of orcs.

The Orc Problem

For the last fifty years or so, one of the key problems the Sumaah republic has with the Empire is their treatment of nonhumans.

Historically, the Sumaah simply killed any non human they came into contact with. They did not practice slavery, but they also believed that nonhumans were a threat to human destiny.

Following the orc rebellion, the Empire allowed the Imperial Orc nation to be formed and treated its members as equal citizens. The Sumaah might have been able to tolerate that – after all they tolerate the Commonwealth which also has orc citizens – but then the Commonwealth does not claim to follow the Way.

The problem is all tangled up with the doctrines of reincarnation and human destiny, and with the definition of idolatry. The Sumaah calim that by allowing orcs to be pilgrims of the Way, to be priests and cardinals, and to hold Imperial titles that gave them authority over human citizens, the Empire is committing idolatry. They are exalting nonhuman creatues above human creatures.

The final straw came in early 379YE when the Synod recognised an orc as an exemplar of Ambition – the former slave Thrace, the leader of the orc rebellion. It is probably no coincidence that the Sumaah declared war on the Empire a mere six months later.

Then Bonewall Rek and Bonewall Cole made everything worse – or perhaps better – by successfully convincing the Imperial Synod to recognise the spiritual nature of orcs by adopting the Doctrines of the Ancestor and the Howling Abyss.

For the first time, Sumaah and Imperial doctrine was completely out of step – and the cause was the Empire’s “exaltation” of nonhumans.

The Sumaah response was unexpected.

They sent one of their praaaaster to Anvil, to bring Bonewall Rek and Bonewall Cole to inquisition. A month later the Houses of Sumaah recognised that there was virtue in the two orcs – but they did not Accept the two new doctrines.

Since then, the Orc Question has continued to vex the Sumaah and cause friction with the Empire. The situation has been exacerbated by the Liberty Pact – which effectively puts orcs on the same level as humans at least as far as slavery is concerned.

For the Sumaah this only makes sense if one views orcs as being capable of being virtuous in the same way as humans.

If Orcs are genuinely capable of virtue, does that then mean they can be part of the Way or not? If they can then the Sumaah will presumably need to offer the same opportunities to convert to the true faith that are offered to their human enemies. Which means they will have to recognise orcs as citizens of the Republic. Which seems at odds with the idea that “humans are the greatest of all beings in creation “

Today, the houses are still divided.

Visitors such as Bonewall Rek or Imperial Orc traders are accorded a modicum of respect but they are not allowed to preach, or undertake any priestly duties. The Sumaah still refute the existance of orc exemplars and paragons, but they have at least laid out the roots of their problem to their fellows in the Empire – and to be honest it is clear that the same concerns the Sumaah have are echoed in some parts of the Empire.

The Sumaah Schism

Finally we come to the big one. I said at the start that nothing divides Sumaah and the Empire like their shared religon, and over the last couple of years that has become more and more obvious… and now the crisis point has been reached.

When the Sumaah sent their missionaries to the Empire it brought the friction between the two nations to a head.

After much debate, at the end of last year the Synod supported Jorma Steelhail of Wintermark in enacting a mandate that urged the citizens of the Empire and the Republic alike to seek common ground and focus on their shared Ambition in spreading the Way to the world.

In response to this mandate, the Houses of Virtue resolved that it would recognise no changes of doctrine and no new paragons and exemplars until the conflict with the Empire had been resolved – or for the next year. The Empire followed suit. Both nations committed to the idea of a symposium to at least discuss whether there was some basis for a shared understanding of the faith or whether it was time for the Sumaah and the Imperial priesthoods to go their seperate ways.

One of the first things the Sumaah did was to lay out what they see as the five fundamental issues separating the two faiths.

ONE

Their first complaint is that the Empire enacts changes of doctrine without considering the opinion of other priests of the Way. If Timoj and Bastion are to be considered equals, then neither the Sumaah nor the Empire may unilaterally decide to change the basic foundation of their shared faith.

This has been reflected most recently in the two new doctrines the Imperial Synod recognised – Ancestors and Howlign Abyss. While they agree the doctines appear sound in isolation, they claim that the Empire has failed to properly consider the wider implications.

It’s not clear whether the Sumaah mean that doctrinal changes should be discussed by both the Imperial Synod and the Houses of Virtue – or whether they are arguing that every priest of the Way regardless of where in the world they live should have a say.

TWO

The Empire appears to lack commitment to the idea that the Way is the only true faith. They compromise constantly with false religions, tolerate those who espouse false virtues, and appear extremely inconsistent on their treatment of malign spiritual powers.

The Sumaah accept that understanding of virtue and the human spirit is incomplete, and that the faithful should strive constantly to improve that understanding but without a commitment to orthodoxy there can be no concord. What the Empire and Sumaah allegedly share is a common understanding of doctrine and a commitment to it – without that there is nothing to discuss.

This seems to be at the heart of the accusations that the Synod has abandoned true virtue in pursuit of political convenience.

Being too tolerant of false religions is an accusation that has been thrown around by the Sumaah repeatedly – they refused to attend the Symposium of Revelation in 380YE because the Empire allowed priests and followers of religions other than the Way to attend, for example. But it also has political implications – Imperial toleration of the Asavean gods and the existance of the Temple of Balo and the Black Bull in Feroz are a clear bone of contention with the praaaster of Sumaah.

THREE

The third concern revolves around a differing opinion of the importance of paragons and exemplars.

While some are known in both nations – Tian, Korl, Atun, Zemress and the like – others are unique to the Republic, and many Imperial paragons and exemplars are not recognised in Sumaah at all.

The Empire does not have an exhaustive list of Sumaah paragons and exemplars but it is believed that there are far fewer of these inspirational figures that are familiar to Imperial priests.

In Summah, a significant emphasis is placed on the role of paragons and exemplars as figures who bot only inspire pilgrims, but also as guides who help the faithful to make virtuous decisions. Exhaustive investigation of all potential inspirations is undertaken, and those who do not meet the highest standards are not recognised by the houses of virtue.

The recognition of not one but two orcs as exemplars, before the question of whether this is idolatry or not has been entirely resolved, is just one example of the conflict between the Sumaan and Imperial atttudes.

The Sumaah also appear critical of the sheer number of inspirations – and seem to harbour a perhaps understandable suspicion that the Empire is as influenced by politics as mmuch of virtue when it comes to recognising new exemplars and paragons.

If the Sumaah and the Empire are to be equal, then the role of inspirational figures in the Way must be discussed and settled once and for all.

FOUR

The Sumaah and the Empire have diverged in their understanding of the virtues.

In particular, the Sumaah are concerned that Imperial priests insist on attempting to tell the faithful who they should be loyal to, or chastise them for insufficient loyalty when they act in a way the priest does not approve of.

The Imperial Loyalty Assembly has recently taken steps of its own to reiterate its understanding of this virtue, and to its commitment to the idea that loyalty comes from within rather than being imposed without. There are surely other ways in which Sumaah and Imperial understanding of thevirtues differ, each of which must be addressed if a satisfactory conclusion is to be reached.

FIFTH – Orcs Again

Finally, as I mentioned above, the role of orcs in the Way must be resolved.

The Empire has blithely allowed them to lead congregations, even going so far as to recognise one as a cardinal. Yet their own doctrine – the Doctrine of the Howling Abyss and the Doctrine of the Ancestors – recognises that orc souls are entirely different from human souls. By exalting orcs, by putting them in a position of authority over humans, then by strict reading of doctrine the Empire has been guilty of idolatry for the last fifty years. The orc question must be answered if Jorma Steelhail’s call for understanding is to have any hope of success.

Implications

The Empire has moved in concert with the Sumaah, toward a symposium during the coming Winter Solstice. It will address the relationship between Timoj and Bastion – between the priests of Sumaah and their Imperial counterparts – once and for all.

Its difficult to say what the outcome wil be – but it seems clear that something mus change. The two nations cannot continue as they are now. With both being part of a the Liberty pact, it is to be hoped that some accord may be reached.

Epilogue

That’s Sumaah then. A nation far too Ambitious, Wise, Courageous, Vigilant, Prosperous, Loyal, and above all Proud to ever really get along with the Empire.

I hope you’ve found this video useful – and that I’ve not missed anything obvious.

You can find further details of everything I’ve mentioned here on the main Empire Wiki. A good place to start is anything that is tagged “Trade Winds” and find the section headed “Sumaah Republic”

Next time I’ll be covering the Sacrophan Delves – the nicest ruthless capitalists you could hope to meet. Until then – go with virtue.

It’s Complicated

I’ve recently put together a “short” twenty minute video, the first in a planned series I’ve been threatening for a whole exploring the relationships between the Empire and the various foreign nations that play a large part in the diplomatic plot of the game. After some advice, I’ve posted my script up here. It’s not precisely the same as the video, but its close enough for jazz.

It first appeared on my Patreon as a “special advance preview” for 24 hours or so during which the importance of putting the script somewhere people could find it was raised (in the absence of the technical ability to do subtitles).

You can find the video here. Probably.

Overview

Asavea is the first nation I’m going to talk about. It lies far to the west of the Empire. It’s modelled very loosely after a generic classical civilisation with elements of ancient Rome, Greece, and Byzantum about it.

It’s a corrupt, stagnant society that spends far too much time dwelling on its past glories. It’s languages are Romantic – French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian and the like – and its also where the in-game language of Old Asavean – Latin – comes from.

It’s also one of the five world powers who are the equals – at least in theory – of the Empire the player characters belong to.

Before I get into recent history, I’m going to give you a short overview of the nation. Then we’ll get to what this means on the field.

A Quick Summary of the Asavean Archipelago

A predominantly island culture, Asavea possesses a small empire scattered across a sprawling archipelago, far across the ocean to the west. They were in their prime before the Empire was founded and have been slowly declining since.

Until around a hundred years ago, the Asavean empire had holdings all over the world. Over the last century they slowly withdrew, turning their attention inwards.

For their part the Asavean people consider their society to approach perfection; change is considered unnecessary and disruptive and should be avoided as much as possible.

They’re all human – there’s no orcs in Asavea and the Asavean people treat them as if they’re exotic and magical people in a way that is also slightly patronising.

The Republic is ruled by the Plenum – a body that appears on the surface to be similar to the Impreial Senate but is actually very different. Rather than being appointed by the people, the Plenum is made up of the leaders of the Plenum families – the hereditary noble caste who all claim descent from ancient heroes who conquered the islands and drove out all the monsters who used to live there.

In addition to the islands that make up the heart of the “Asavean republic”, the nation includes of a number of subject states called “satrapies”. In theory these satrapies are sovereign nations “advised” by Asavean satraps; in practice they are part of the Asaveans empire in all the ways that matter.

The Plenum is based on the island of Nemoria, in the city that shares the same name. The people of the archipelago often say “Asavean” in the same way an Imperial might say “Imperial” but refer to “Nemorian” when they mean “the people who run the nation.”

Recently, two of the satrapies – Maracoss and Emphedor – attempted to pull away from the control of the Republic. The Nemorian plenum sent troops to suppress this uprising. Imperial forces fought on both sides – but predominantly on the side of the Asaveans. The insurrection has just recently been defeated, ending the thread of all-out civil war.

Almost all manual labour, and a good deal of skilled labour is done by the slave class, which constitutes a significant portion of the population.

The Asaveans are a naval power but they’re not quite the marine colossus they once were. They often rely on mercenaries, although they still maintain a small number of potent military vessels.

Asavea is a polytheistic society, and they are open to any religion that doesn’t interfere with the smooth functioning of their state. Religion is mostly a matter of tradition rather than fervent belief. There are more than a hundred Asavean gods, and only a priest is likely to know more than a handful. The Empire is pretty sure these gods don’t actually exist, but their priesthoods help to unite the many different parts of Asavean society at least in theory.

Recently the Way has begun to find a foothold in Asavea, particuarly among the slaves. The fact that the Way denies the reality of the Asavean gods is a matter of some concern. In the last few years or so, the Empire has established a missionary presence in Nemoria at the invitaiton of the Plenum – although that’s been very far from plain sailing. I’ll get to that later.

Asavea has one very open enemy that causes it grief – the Sumaah Republic. Once upon a time Asavea ruled Sumaah, until the Sumaash had a revolution and threw them out. Sumaah and Asavea are reasonably close to each other, and the Sumaah would like nothing better than to tear down the Plenum and convert Asavea to the Way. Sadly, while the Sumaah have the advantage on land, the Asaveans have the advantage at sea so the two nations are caught in a bit of a stalemate.

The Tarquinius Problem

The Tarquinius family are a powerful Plenum familily and an outspoken opponent of the Empire. They apparently never pass up an opportunity to cause trouble for Asavean/Imperial realtions – but at one time they actually had ambitions to be Imperial allies.

In Summer 379YE, the powerful Tarquinius family dispatched one of their scions – young Alonso – to discuss trading large amounts of white granite to the Empire.

Things did not go particularly well, and the young Asavean emissary ended up cursed by Imperial ctizens.

The Tarquinius needless to say were less than happy, and made all kinds of demands for reparations – demands that largely came to nothing.

At the following summit – Autumn 379YE – the Imperial Senate passed a short-lived law making it illegal for Imperial citizens to engage in trade of Bourse goods – incuding white granite – with Asavea.

The law was quickly repealed, but not quickly enough for the Tarquinius. Already smarting at the insult to their family caused by the curse, they withdrew their offer and threw a massive strop that caused major waves in Imperial-Asavean.

In time a new deal was arranged with the ambitious Heraclien and Ragnabe families, and the Cavabianca Docks were finally built, but relations with the Tarquinius continued to decline.

One of their ships was wrecked off the Brass Coast, and only some of the white granite they claimed was aboard was returned to them. Several more Tarquinius vessels were apparently caught in magical storms raised by the Empire – causing them to demand more reparations from the Senate. But it soon became apparent that the reason these ships were on the Bay of Catazar to get wrecked was because they were trading the white granite they had originally offered to the Empire to the Empire’s enemies – specifically the Grendel.

When the town of Apulian in Spiral was liberated by Imperial forces in Summer 382YE, another scion of the Tarquinius familiy was captured. He made no secret of the fact he was there to trade white granite, and confirmed that the Asaveans had an embassy in Dubhtraig (the city of Salt Lord Suriad, one of the leaders of the southern orcs). There’s some confusion regarding this particular Tarquinius, but as far as anyone can tell he ends up back in Nemoria, badmouthing the Empire, and the trade of white granite to the Grendel continues to this day.

The Tarquinius are only one of the Plenum families, but they are powerful enough that their continued opposition continues to complicate Imperial-Asavean relations.

The Two Temples

During the Spring Equinox 380YE, the Plenum sent a petition to the Empire. Three high-ranking priests suggested the creation of an Asavean temple on Imperial soil as a way to cement good relations and secure better trade. In return, the Plenum would give permission for the Empire to build a temple of the Way – what hey called the Seven Lords of Virtue – in Nemoria, the Asavean capital.

The senate accepted the offer. A temple of the Asavean gods was built in Oran, on the northern coast of Feroz, in the Brass Coast. There was some opposition from the Synod, and work on the temple was delayed several times. In the end though a clear statement was passed by the Brass Coast assembly encouraging the people of Feroz to welcome visitors from Asavea and to resist anyone trying to cause friction between them.

Once work on the Temple in Feroz was complete, the Senate was able to get to work constructing a large Temple of the Way in Nemoria. Despite doing so at the invitation of the Plenum, some prominent Asaveanss were critical of the move having serious concerns about the effect inviting priests of the Way to preach openly might have – especially given that the religion is most closely associated with the Summah Republic avowed enemies of Nemorians.

Regardless, with both temples built there was a marked improvement in trade relations between Asavea and the Empire. The trade route to Nemoria became particularly lucrative compared to other similar routes with Imperial captains assured of additional profits in orichalcum and iridescent gloaming for making the journey to the west.

It was not plain sailing, however. In Summer 382YE, there was some question as to whether the Temple in Nemoria should train local petitioners as priests of the Way. The Synod ultimately chose to allow Asavean priests – knowing that as local citizens they would be able to bring the Way to more people than the Imperial priests could hope to reach.. Unfortunately, in being so careful who to recruit, the Empire also reinforced the perception that there was something secretive and conspiratorial about the Way.

Then, at the start of this year, the Grendel invaded Feroz. They captured Oran – but they left the Asavean temple unmolested – even though the priests had allowed some Freeborn families to take refuge within their walls. Rather than looting the place, they simply allowed it to continue oiperating as normal – even going so fara s to encourage the priests of Balo and the Black Bull to preach their faith freely to Freeborn citizens across occupied Feroz – something the Empire had obviously prevented them from doing.

Finally, a week before the Summer Solstice, news reached the Empire that an angry mob had stormed the temple of the Seven Virtues in Nemoria. The Asavean authorities intervened and arrested the instigators, but several of the priest swere seriously hurt – one fatally – and the temple itself was badly damaged.

The Plenum apologised to the Empire, denounced the attack on the Temple, offered assurances that those responsible would face the full weight of Asavean law, and of course reassuring the Senate that they have permission to repair the damage if they wished.

So thats the current situation – two temples – an Imperial temple ruined in Nemoria, and an Asavean temple in occupied Feroz. One increasingly seen by the Asaveans as a centre for sedition and the other a target for increasing Imperial concerns about the practice of idolatry. Indeed, it was only the fact that the Temple of Balo and the Black Bull was under Grendel occupation that saved it from the sledgehammers and chisels of the angry mob that recently cast down all other statues of the false Asavean gods they could get their hands on… a subject I’ll get to in a moment.

The Asavean Architect Scandal

Almodin Oktístis was a respected priest of the god the Asaveans call “Baddu the Builder” – the patron of architects and builders. He came to the Empire to work on the temple of Balo and the Black Bull, and as construction drew to a close in Winter 380YE he made an offer to the Senate to stay and build more things in the Empire.

In conjunction with Freeborn architects and builders with whom he had developed a good working relationship, and in return for a generous stipend, he offered to oversee two commissions each season without using any of the existing resources of the civil service.

Given that the Senate has only limited capacity to commission new structures, it’s perhaps not a surprise that they were keen to retain the servies of this expert architect and builder

Almost immediately, trouble reared its ugly head.

While his work on the Pallas Docks was reasonably prosaic, the Runeforge in Redoubt he was commissioned to build in Spring 381YE was covered in depictions of Asavean gods and spirits. Likewise, the fortification of Alexandra’s Watch in Lestazny was “decorated” with statues of bull-headed warriors and mosaics of giant sea creatures. The Varushkans took steps of their own – and a year later all the idolatrous statues were stripped off the castle and used to pave a courtyard.

The Architect was perhaps undetstandably not happy, but by Spring 382YE he’d overseen seven commissions, each one demonstrating his enthusiasm for covering everything in idols of false gods – to the increasing dismay of the Synod.

In Summer 382YE, Almodin was brought to Inquisition and then in Autumn of the same year his contract with the Senate was terminated, and the Synod condemned him as an idolator.

Condemnation is a serious matter, and so Almodin was brought before the magistrates. He was tried, and found guilty of idolatrous action. His punishment was exile – something he was all to happy to engage with as he had by all accounts had enough of the Empire by this point. He duly departed from Sarvos on a ship bound for Nemoria.

But the story does not end there.

During the Winter Solstice, the Assembly of Pride condemned Almodin and his commissions as an affront to Imperial Pride. At the Spring Equinox, the Senate voted to redesign all six of his remaining unaltered commissions – at the same time as the Pride assembly enacted a mandate to encourage the virtuous to take matters into their own hands.

In the following moths, mobs descended on the buildings Almodin had commissioned and tore out everything that might have been a representation of the Asavean gods. This significnatly disrupted the functionong of this buildings needless to say but luckily the Senate builders were able to repair the damage in time for the Summ Stolstice.

The mobs didn’t just tear out the statues, they also took the decorations and repurposed them in such a way as to send a clear, insulting message to the Asavean priesthoods that htye were not welcome in the Empire.

The message was duly received. The Asaveans were incensced, and the treatment of their gods – alberit in the form of statues and mosaics – may have lead to the damage suffered by the Temple of the Way in Nemoria I’ve just mentioned.

The scandal doesn’t even end there – the Synod is still engaged in inquisition of the people seen as responsible for encouraigng Almodin to spread his blasphemy (or heresy) even after it was clear what he was doing – and then there’s the question of what is going to happen if the Empire liberates the last remaining symbol of the Asavean gods – the Temple of Balo and the Black Bull in oran, currently itact but under Grendel occupation.

Northern Insurrection

Through most of 381Ye there were scattered rumours of trouble brewing in Asavea. It finally boiled over at the start of 382YE.

Shortly after the Spring Equinox, the northern satrapy of Marracoss lynched their satrap, burned her palace in Aracossa to the ground, and declared independence. A week later the neighbouring satrapy of Emphedor followed suit.

The Plenum could not tolerate open rebellion, obviously, and immediately mobilised its armies to suppress the revolt. To their surprise, however, they discovered not a rag-tag rabble disgruntled minor nobles such as they have seen before, but a serious, organised military force well-equipped and well-provisioned.

The Asaveans said that there were clear signs of Sumaah Republic support for these anarchists. This was nothing new – Sumaah agents have been actively encouraging rebellion against the Plenum for decades.

For their part, the Plenum reched out to the Empire (among others) asking for the aid of Imperial mercenaries.

Some made the jorueny to Asavea to support the Asavean government in ending the insurrection, but all did not go to plan. The magistrates raised serious concerns about Imperial citizens killing what they legally considered to the foreigners – not barbarians. The Assembly of Nine condemned those traveling to Asavea, and the Vigilance assembly urged citizens across the Empire to make note of anyone traveling to Asavea to help put down the rebellion.

The Plenum responded quickly – they put all Imperial mercenaries who did come to Asavea on defensive duties far from the front line. During the Winter Solstive they appraoched the Senate to approve support for their cause – at the same time as a woman called Terentia Comasigne, the defacto leader of the rebels reached out to the Empire for aid.

The Senate voted to allow Imperial citizens to follow their virtue and fight either in support of the insurrection, or as allies of the Nemorian forces seeking to crush it.

At the same time, Imperial traders took advantage of opportunities to sell weapons and armour to the beleagured rebels – engaging extensively in war profiteering with the temporary port of Fort Maragladia in Maracoss.

Most mercenaries from the Empire chose to support the Plenum forces attempting to restore order, and despite some Imperial soldiers fighting on the rebel side, the insurrectionists were pushed back

The rebellion was effectively broken just before the Summer Solstice – despite an increase in the number of Imperials supporting them. Fort Maragladia fell, the rebels in Emphedor surrendered, and the short-lived insurrection was all over bar some mopping up and a spate of former rebels trying to flee Asavea for new homes abroad.

While the Asaveans did not have it all their own way, crushing the insurrection as effectively as they did has sent a clear message to the rest of their satrapies that rebellion will not be tolerated. It’s also likely done serious damage to the Sumaah presence in Asavea, and unfortunately may have made the Asaveans even more suspicious of the Way – although paradoxically the fact that the majority of Imperial forces active in Asavea over thecourse of the rebellion were on the side of the Plenum seems to have gone some way toward improving relations with the Empire.

The Liberty Pact

During the Winter Solstice this year everything became even more complicated as the Empire became a signatory to the Liberty pact – an international agreement solidifying opposition to slavery in the wider world.

This meant that the Senate immediately imposed trade sanctions on all trade with Asavea, until such time as the Asaveans were prepared to give up the practice of slavery.

The Plenum was furious – not so much with the sanctions as with the way they were imposed. They immediately retaliated with sanctions of their own, restricting trade of Imperial goods to Asavea – but at the same time remaining keen for Imperial mercenaries to help them put down the insurrection of their northern provinces.

Asavea is keen to see the sanctions removed, but obviously the Empire can’t do that and remain part of the Liberty Pact. The Empire urges the Asaveans to abandon the instutiton of slavery – something they in turn can’t do without seeing their entire society collapse.

A stalemate, then, that will no doubt continue to complicate Imperial/Asavean relations for years to come.

The Grendel Problem

One last thing then before we finish. The Grendel.

The Asaveans clearly have good diplomatic relations with the Grendel orcs – potentially better relations than they do with the Empire.

Among other things, Asavean ships are able to sail the Bay of Catazar unmolested by Grendel privateers. Some of those ships clearly dock at Dubhtraig, and trade freely with the Grendel Salt Lords. When the Grendel sacked Sarvos, the Asavean embassy there was left untouched – there are even stories that an Asavean diplomat was able to negotiate the return of some of the stolen Sarvosan art treasures looted by the Grendel.

The Tarquinius claims of an embassy in Dubhtraig may not have been publicly confirmed – but it is an open secret that the Asaveans are friendly with the Grendel orcs. Indeed, there are several stories that during their recent problems with rebellious satrapies the Nemorian naval forces were supported by Grendel mercenary fleets for all that they tried to ensure Imperial and Broken Shore forces did not come into contact with one another.

Both Asavea and the Grendel are slave-owning naval powers. The Asaveans don’t have much experience of dealing with orcs, and treat them as if they are mystical, lucky creatures which the Grendel are not above taking advantage of. The Asaveans love exotic novelties and diversions which the Grendel can supply them with in abundance.

Yet for all their braggadocio the Grendel are not in the same League as the Empire – at least not yet. The Asaveans cannot risk openly backing the orcs of the broken shore – not while there is any chance of repairing their fractured relationship with the Empire, at any rate.

Epilogue

That’s Asavea then. The ultimate “it’s complicated” international relationship. I hope you’ve found this useful – you can find further details of everything I’ve mentioned here on the main Empire Wiki. A good place to start is anything that is tagged “Trade Winds” and find the section headed “Asavean Archipelago”.

I’m hoping to cover the four other Great Powers the Empire has relations with – Sumaah, Sacrophan, Commonwealth, and Jarm – and then if there’s time maybe do a roundup of Axos, Faraden, and the Iron Confederacy.

If you think I’ve missed anything, let me know in the comments below.

Five Thoughts About Winds of Fortune

This article first appeared on my Patreon on 25th April. You can get all sorts of incredibly insightful stuff like this for the price of a nice coffee.

The Jam-in-the-ear Incident

PopTarts

I’m beginning to parse “Jam in the ear” as “Luck in the head” only with more jam and less mindfuckery. Don’t ask.

Following an early morning hot-jam-in-the-ear incident (don’t ask) I’m prepping to head to site for the first Empire event of the year. I am nowhere near organised. In some ways, the eight month break between E4 and E1 is a bad thing – it helps the event sneak up on you and tricks you into thinking you have loads of time yet. One year we’ll learn.

The last job before the event was, as always, Winds of Fortune. The “here’s some things going on in the game world” originally pioneered by Dan Williams. They’ve moved on a bit from his early proof-of-concept.

What follows are my five early-morning jam-earred thoughts about the Winds we’ve just finished writing and publishing.

One : We Write Too May Words

I always do a word count after we finish. I promise myself I won’t, but I always do. Just to see how much we wrote. This time round, counting Winds of War, I personally racked up around 75,000 words most of them in the last two weeks. That’s not counting the Winds of Fortune the Boss wrote solo and I edited or added a paragraph to, nor the Winds of Fortune materially written by other writers (two and three-quarters this time round).

For those keeping track at home that’s just two thousand words shy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and two thousand more than “Catcher in the Rye”.

it’s just too many words – not just in terms of writing but in terms of reading. We shouldn’t be encouraging our players to read the equivalent of a short novel about a plucky witch and her idiot friends before each event if they want to avoid Fear of Missing Out. It creates a barrier to entry that’s not helpful.

It also categorically makes a Wind of Fortune harder to read and understand. Ultimately one of the aims of Winds of Fortune is to put everyone on the same page and that means ideally every element of the piece – especially the calls to action – need to be as clear as possible.

We have got to be less verbose. It is sadly not something either of us is good at.

Two : We Spend Way Too Much Time Explaining

Something clicked during our first edit pass on “Bills or Bows” which is that we spend too many words explaining why a Wind of Fortune exists. There’s good reasons to do this but it again runs the risk of making this section of the game too abstruse to new players. Part of it arises from some things that happened a few years ago when we received some passionate feedback that a Wind of Fortune was “unfair” because it just came out of the blue. Since then the Boss in particular has over-compensated, often wasting hundreds of words trying to justify the fact something is happening. That has to stop.

One of the benefits of a wiki is that you can link to sections that already exist. Especially when we’re doing the most recent instalment in a multi-event Wind of Fortune thread we need to start linking more and repeating less, and possibly spending less time worrying about how the Wind of Fortune is going to be received.

Three : Different Types of Plot

Thomas E. Hancocks first brought up the idea that there is a fundamental difference between the way we (Matt and I especially) do plot and more traditional live-roleplaying plot. I paraphrase, obviously, but his argument was that in games he has written before the plot is about fining out what is going on – and then what you do is obvious, whereas in our games we try to make sure the players know what is going on – but what you do about it is the point of the plot.

It’s probably a bit of a generalisation, and I don’t see it as a criticism of other plot writing styles (diff’r’nt strokes etc etc). It is most obvious in the way we do Winds of Fortune – which amounts to the majority of the game content the Boss and I personally create these days.

The standard Wind of Fortune lays out a situation in some detail, talks about some obvious levers that players can use to change that situation, and lays out a likely outcome if nothing happens. In the best ones, we might also take a moment to point out things that are not obvious, or suggest other tools that might be used to create new levers. Then we step back a bit and see what players do.

This largely emerges from our philosophy of player-led gaming (I should write about that more some time), but its also about that fundamental idea of significant choices. We tend to think nine-times-out-of-ten that the best choices are informed choices. You don’t need to know ”everything” but it makes a richer game if you know enough to be able to make a choice and then not be completely blind-sided by the outcome.

Its also because on the whole we try not to present situations where the best outcome is obvious. To be reductionist, a common plot in roleplaying is that there is a terrible villain who will kill everyone if not stopped. The resolution of that story is straightforward – the villain must be stopped or they will kill everyone. There’s minimal game there, few decisions to be made. The drama comes from working out how to stop the villain, not about whether the villain should be stopped (Boromir notwithstanding).

We tend as writers to prefer lower fantasy challenges and situations. If the villain is just going to destroy a village, but promises to give you a powerful magic ring if you stay out of it, there is scope for players to disagree about the outcome.

So to use “Will You Believe?” as an example, we lay out a situation – the Sumaah Republic have denounced the Imperial Synod and sent missionaries to the Empire. We present some obvious tools that can change the situation – a set of mandates you could enact and their likely outcomes. These mandates as much as possible are not presented as right-and-wrong or good-and-bad choices, just as choices that will change the situation in certain likely ways. We mention other levers you could create – the open ended power of statements of principle for example (although to use one of these you need to let the situation continue to develop which might not be ideal but you weigh the outcomes and make a choice). Finally we explain out what will happen if the situation remains unchanged – the missionaries will continue to undermine respect for the Synod.

We genuinely have no idea how this will turn out. I have some outcomes I think will be cooler than others, but I’ve not set my heart on any of them. Doing that leads to disappointment and the temptation to nudge the plot back onto the story-rails I think would make for a better narrative and that road is one that while tempting leads to bad places.

Four : Alternative Mandates Are The Worst

When we overhauled the Imperial Synod, we introduced mandates and statements of principle. A mandate is an announcement by the Imperial Synod that they want something to happen. It represents priests moving hearts and minds in certain directions and it is an intentionally imprecise tool that nonetheless shifts the game situation dramatically at times. It contrasts with the much more solidly-defined, down-to-earth powers of the Senate to change things in more predictable but less swingy fashion.

Whenever we present a Wind of Fortune that has a mandate in it, players whose characters are part of the Imperial Synod (anyone with a congregation personal resource) are able to e-mail us and suggest alternative wordings. We then discuss the probably outcomes with them and if they still want to go ahead, we present them to the players as part of the wind of fortune.

They eat up our time a lot. Man do they ever. We spent pretty much the whole of yesterday doing alternative mandate discussion which given how late we finished Winds of Fortune was both inevitable and a luxury we could not afford. I hate alternative mandates.

However they are also a vital part of that whole player-led conceit. They’re a straightforward way for players to weld their own levers together and send the trolley off on a completely unexpected track. Life would be a lot easier if we didn’t evaluate them and present the likely outcomes publicly to all the players but we kind of have to do that for two key reasons.

First, we care about informed decisions – even if that information is “its hard to predict what will happen”. if we just told the player who suggested the mandate what the outcome would be we’d be stealing agency from all the other priests, and freeing that player to misrepresent the outcome of supporting their mandate.

Second, it keeps us honest. This is probably a wider point, but by telling people what is likely to happen if they pull a lever we create another safeguard against us pushing the game back along the rails we want it on to make a better story.

Four-and-a-bit : I Need To Be More Careful With My Mandate Wording

This is an obscure one, but when I write a mandate I often get carried away. I use evocative and emotive language and that backfires. One of the ones I wrote for this event accused some other people of being “jealous” of the Empire. Unfortunately, as several people pointed out, the Way actually says you shouldn’t demean people even your enemies. Passing a mandate that insults someone – even if they are provably massive pricks – is actually a serious religious faux pas for many people.

So going forward I have to write more calmly when presenting mandates. it is not going to be easy.

Five : This Is The Plot Architecture Of The Game

We’ve kind of known this for a while, but we talked about it explicitly a bit this time round so I’m including it here. Along with the military campaign, Winds of Fortune are basically the plot architecture of the game. Individual plot writers create plot that whizzes around the field like a firework on a roller skate creating personal moments for players, but Winds of Fortune provides the architecture that the event hangs off. It’s the “nine o’ clock news” plot that helps shape the beats of the event.

Some of it is intimate – especially the various round-ups and encounter-supporting elements – but the Winds with wider relevance shape the metaplot of the individual game and the campaign as a whole.

Matt talks sometimes about the difference between plot that is non-player characters talking to players, and the plot that is players talking to players. He explains it better in person but the gist is that the former is plot only as long as the non-player  character is present, while the latter is plot all the time. We very much favour the latter shape for our games and it is baked in at every level as best we can from trickle-up economics where everyone has the potential to be an economic actor, to the presentation of Winds of Fortune.

So for example this event we ask a bunch of questions “how will you deal with major religious conflict with a foreign power many of you want to be your friend?”, “do you care about cthulhoid vegetables on the warpath if they only effect some of you?”, “will you attack the Grendel and free slaves to help build an army even though that reduces your chances to win your wars?”, “who gets the new territory?”, “how will you address the orc religion problem?”, “would you like to know what the mallum looks like?”, “how will these two nations redefine their miitary capabilities and attitudes?”, “how badly do Wintermark players want to be heroes?”, “what are you going to do with your limited resources?”, “how will you define this new archetype?”, “is there going to be a general strike?” and so on and so forth.

Presenting those questions is how we give shape to the event; answering them is how players give shape to the campaign. Arguably.

On Player Backgrounds and Personal Plot

The third of our guest articles by David Kibblewhite, talking about the Fairyland game. Here he’s talking about using player backgrounds and how it can be vital when creating personal plot.

Go Big or Go Home

Fairyland was a pretty ambitious event and we went into it with a mindset of “go big or go home”. The key thing about it was that we wanted it to start with a rave, or as I learned from cultural correspondent John Newton it would properly be called, a free party.

We decided 50 was a good number of players; any less and the dance part of the event wouldn’t work, we reasoned. We also decided to host it at Candlestone, which is not a cheap site, but we had no existing player base to draw from (to quote Kat Quatermass, we were the most experienced first time event runners ever) and were nervous about charging too much, so for that reason also 50 players seemed to work on paper. We got our 50 bookings much more quickly than we expected; we had suckered people in with our cool, edgy premise.

At this point we were not massively sure what our plot was. We knew they were going to get transported to a literal fairy dimension by the power of mid-90s dance music and desire for escape of the daily grind. We knew the rest of the event would focus on trying to escape Fairyland, or choosing not to. We also knew it was going to involve a literal Heart of Gold. But we didn’t immediately know what people would do all day once they were in Fairyland.

At a LARP I don’t pay to sit around. I want to be doing something, or I want to be thinking hard on solving a mystery, exploring relationships, or resolving a moral dilemma. So we thought about what people enjoy at events. When I look at people’s lists of hots and nots as an Empire plot writer, the thing that jumps out at me is they very rarely mention the plot.

90% of the good parts of LARP are actually players interacting with each other. They just need something to bounce off; something to give them space to explore those relationships, to take dramatic action, or to perform. And the character that the player is usually most invested in is their own. The best LARPs I’ve been to are ones like Tabula Rasa, where I went on a personal journey, genuinely learning something about myself and how I interact with others.

After Trauma

The bit after the NPCs have traumatised them is at least as important as the bit during. Photo Credit Beth Dooner

So we decided we would aim to provide a personal, private experience for every single character, reasoning that as these occurred throughout the day players would come back, speak about what they meant, and make their own stories. Basically, they would go through some shit. Multiple experienced event runners told us this was insane; completely impossible.

Oh yeah, and we couldn’t run them on Friday because the plot dictated we were not doing anything supernatural then, we couldn’t start right away on Saturday because we needed a transition from party atmosphere to fighting for survival, and we had to be finished by 10PM because we didn’t want anyone to miss our finale stuff for reasons outside their control.

This left about eleven hours to run 50 encounters whilst our main plot continued. Clare also didn’t believe we could do this, but was mostly talked round when she saw how pared back the encounters were, and she was absolutely instrumental in making any of this actually happen on the day.

Pretty Organised

Clare’s pretty organised. Photo credit Martyn Sullivan

Moments

So what were we doing for these personal encounters? We knew most player characters would likely be on mind-bending, potentially mind shattering drugs. This is good because one thing I have learned running Kallavesi visions at Empire (non-interactive, drug-based visionary set pieces) is that if an encounter is a dream or hallucination, you can get away with a lot. Things don’t have to look perfect as long as the right impression and symbolism is there, and it doesn’t have to make sense in a wider context than the people experiencing it because it doesn’t necessarily interact with the rest of the game world.

We also decided the purpose of the encounters; to test each of the ravers to see if they were worthy of becoming monarch of Fairyland. Worthiness was not a moral judgement, it was a measure of how certain you were of your own identity, how well you knew yourself.

Not Worthy (Yet)

Someone who isn’t worthy yet. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Having read an article Harry Harrold wrote about A Wing and a Prayer where he talked about the structure of “moments” that he used I realised that language, even the language you use internally is important. And that’s when I stopped calling these personal encounters “personal encounters” and announced we were now calling them “Trips”, which was much more evocative of the setting and feel we were going for. The other members of the core SparkLRP team told me I was a pretentious tosser, and I wholeheartedly agreed.

So how did we write the trips and make them something the players would care about? That’s where the backgrounds come in.

Player backgrounds for one-offs; How to write them and what to do with them

We never ran an event before this one but we had the idea that we wanted to know personal details about the characters in order that we could give them things they’d actually care about. We didn’t want a wall of text in whatever style the player chose, we wanted some structure. So we asked a series of questions. Our hope was by the time we came to writing these encounters that since we’d asked a few different questions, each background would contain something we could use to hang an encounter off of.

With his permission, I’m going to go through Tim Baker’s background, as whilst he took a while to click with making a character for this game, when he did it was one of the easiest to work with out of all the backgrounds we had.

Goblin Child

Tim with his goblin child. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Q: What’s your name?

A: Albert (Berry) Barker

Even this is good and it’s just the character name. He’s given us a nickname, so we now have three ways to address him. Mr. Barker and he knows it’s something official, Berry for a friend, and Albert, probably a family member.

Q: What’s your standard of education?

A: Failed o levels.

Q: Do you have a job? If so, describe it. If not, what do you do for money?

A: Labourer/builder

OK, we have a solid picture of a working class guy here. So far so good. We also know a thing the character is good at. He’s handy, practical, the sort of person who could turn into some kind of everyman hero in the right circumstances. We know he has a job and is therefore not dirt poor. And since we also know that Tim is a pretty fit and active person, we know we could pitch plot involving some physicality at this character if we wanted.

Heroes

I don’t have any pictures of Tim being heroic at this event, so here’s one of Jenny, Jules, Emma and Nic instead. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Q: How’s your home-life? Live with anyone else?

A: Flat share with Bryony’s character

Brilliant. So you’re attending with your long term OOC partner, but IC your relationship is just flatmates. That is extremely useful to know, thanks.

Q: What are your hobbies/interests (outside of raving)?

A: Loves detective/mystery novels and dreams of writing one himself some day.

Excellent. Berry has an interest and an unfulfilled desire to do something with it. Tim said that overall he got a theme of “change” from our questions and tried to play into that. He was right to do this; it was very helpful.

Q: Do you have a cat? Name and description if so please.

A: Mungo is a stray who isn’t supposed to be allowed in our flat, but the landlord doesn’t know about him. He is a grumpy, scabby alley cat who seems to like us and rewards us for giving him shelter by bringing us prey, that we have to clean up rapidly before any flat inspections.

Tim said this was a good question to help him think about the character. To quote him, “It was an important human touch that helped me think about his home life, because so many things touch on it. Do you like animals? Are you kind to them? Does your life allow you to have a pet of your own? If not, what are the barriers that stop you having a pet?”. 

We asked this question because in the Fairyland gameworld, cats were evil servants of the Cait Sidhe who spied on you and delivered messages between Earth and Fairyland. However Tim’s answer was great here. We know that Berry is kind to stray cats and therefore we’ll brief our cat npc to start out relatively favourable toward him, and we also know that Mungo hates Berry’s landlord, which is why in some documentation the players found, Mungo requested first a handgun, then later a blowpipe to do away with them. The requests were denied.

But based on what Tim said there I think I’d always include that question, whether it’s plot relevant or not.

Cat Files

Of all the cat pictures I gathered for this event, this one of a stray carrying a massive dead bird in its jaws might be my favourite. Photo credit Bea Key

Q: What’s a significant memory of yours?

A: Being told he wouldn’t amount to anything at school. Then dropping out and taking the first job he could find.

We’re back to the fact he is coasting in life, but now we have something external to pin to it, and a specific moment where it started.

Q: Any recurring dreams?

A: Berry stays up late writing, especially after drug-fuelled nights out, when he hits the paranoia stage of his comedown. When he finally sleeps he dreams of his characters, detectives endlessly pursuing complex conspiracies.

This is really good stuff. Now we know about both the dream the character has, and some odd drugs-related behaviour. In our style guide on the event website it says “Drug taking, escaping from reality , and associated effects on the human mind is a key theme for the event.” and oh look, here is Berry doing drugs and getting lost in a fantasy world of his own creation. It’s like he actually read our website or something.

He hasn’t actually told us the time period his stories are set in, or the names of any of the characters, but we expect so long as it was detectives he’d go with it on the day.

Escaping the Daily Grind

Berry, escaping the daily grind. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Q: What are you proud of?

A: The draft of a short story on his desk at home – about a detective called Lily Mayes – that he hasn’t yet dared show to anybody.

Nope, don’t worry, he has now told us the name of his key character, and their gender is also clear. Matt and Andy at Empire sometimes say we don’t care about your parents’ names in your background and it makes me want to throw them through the window of their converted shipping container. In a one-off, you can probably get away with just making up a name. In an ongoing game like Empire, if your parents are significant then I can’t use them if I don’t know their names, because you will know them and I will be wrong. 

Q: What are you ashamed of?

A: Not standing up to toxic masculinity at work. Dropping out of school.

We already knew he wasn’t happy about dropping out of school, but now he has thrown in a reason he doesn’t like his job. It’s the lads culture. This tells us something about his values, and ups the ante on the idea that Berry is not all he has the potential to be.

Q: Do you have any secrets?

A: Ambition to be a writer.

Fair enough. No need to make up anything additional and fill up the page with chaff.

Q: Finally, describe yourself in a maximum of three words

A: Trapped. Creative. Curious.

Look how in the whole background there is nothing that doesn’t tell us something useful. We do not have to wade through acres of text to pick out the interesting bits. I’ve said it a few times but what a great background this is.

Just A Normal Bloe

He’s a normal bloke with some normal problems. Photo credit Beth Dooner

So What Happens on this Trip?

The toxic masculinity thing is interesting, but we couldn’t touch it because discrimination on OOC characteristics was against our conduct policy. We could have done something with his shitty teacher. But clearly the most interesting thing was his writing. He is doing that without needing qualifications. He can do that all on his own; he clearly just lacks confidence as it has been beaten out of him at school and at work.

So we send out Lily Mayes, the detective character from his imagination. She brings him an investigation file with questions in it that invite him to consider the arc of the main plot and attempt to uncover the conspiracy that has brought the players to Fairyland. She instructs him to complete it then gives him the location of a dead drop to put the completed file.

What does Lily Mayes look like? Well we have an NPC who used to ref Tommy Guns and Temperance, and we are confident she can do a decent film noir, prohibition era detective, so we go with that. Is it what Tim had in his head? We don’t know. Probably not, but the truth is this is a short encounter in a one off game. As long as she is instantly recognisable as a detective we’re pretty sure Tim will roll with it and the encounter will work.

Finally we need a win/lose condition. The key thing here is it doesn’t matter what he writes in the file as long as he puts a little effort into it. The point is simply that writing will bring him to his true nature, unburdened by self-deception and whatever other bullshit he is carrying with him. If he doesn’t engage, doesn’t write, then fair enough, he’s going to be an unhappy builder all his life and never get published. 

We determined we couldn’t use a set dressed encounter tent for every trip, and this one doesn’t need one. In fact, the clandestine nature of the meetings simply doesn’t work unless this encounter takes place in the live environment. Easy to write, easy to run out. Requirements: one Ali Hancock, one trenchcoat, one written form in a black envelope addressed to Berry (because he’s imagined her up and that’s the name he calls himself) for Tim to fill out.

Mysterious Spirit

This mysterious spirit wasn’t needed for Tim’s encounter, as it could come to him in the field. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Musical Cues

There’s really only one thing that would have made Tim’s background better, and that would be something that Aislin le Galloudec included in her background, an obvious musical cue.

Aislin’s background was also very well put together. Her character, Myfanwy Carter, was a 21 year old Christian who had just moved away from her home and church community, which were everything to her. She was innocent, lost, lonely and planning to turn up to the rave more or less by accident.

We knew from her Facebook posts on the group that she was planning to get into as much trouble as she could. Great. But in her background she mentioned her last church service in her old church and that during it she heard one of her favourite hymns “You Shall Go Out With Joy”.

This is really useful information. On our website we said Fairyland was “A game about music, ecstasy, love and revenge”. It’s also well known that there are going to be speakers there, speakers that play music. She has told us exactly what music to play if we want to let her know something is about her.

Don’t get me wrong, we could have used something else, but why would we? So when Myfanwy faced her private moment of doubt alone in our encounter tent, we had the hymn playing throughout. She got no other input on how to proceed, she just had to be guided by faith.

Guided By Faith

Myfanwy, looking for guidance in the Extreme Faith Bible, like the sweet cinnamon roll she was. Photo credit Beth Dooner

There was another character who was an environmental protestor, and a massive Levellers fan. This might actually have been a better musical cue, because it was slightly less specific.

I therefore spent a while working out exactly which Levellers song I was going to play during his protest scene. It helps that I too am a massive Levellers fan, and that they produced 95% of their music worth listening to prior to ‘96. Both cues worked really well for the individual characters, from my point of view.

Chains of our Own Making

Johnny Strange, breaking chains of his own making. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Digging

There were one or two things where we wanted further information. Tom Francis’s character for example was Dr. Ed, a sort of psychedelic guru who had been kicked out of Cambridge university because of “administrative concerns” (read: ethics trash fire). Fine. Now, he also mentioned that he believed he was in communication with an pan-dimensional entity called GAMANHA, that appeared as a lozenge of pure energy. We decided we would have that entity talk to him over the PA, loudly and publicly to confront him with his secret:

Large portions of my doctoral thesis were plagiarised from an incomplete thesis text from 20 years earlier which I unearthed in the Berkeley library archives. The author was one Barry Tremaine. As far as I’m aware, I destroyed the only original copy and no micro-fiche was taken as it was never submitted.”

Trustworthy

Would you go into a psych experiment this guy was running? Photo credit Beth Dooner

But we didn’t really know much about GAMANHA, so it’d be difficult to play, and we were concerned Tom might have quite a lot of headcanon on this point so we didn’t want to risk making it up. Also, whilst Tom’s background was very entertaining, very on-theme and contained a lot of crazy stuff that was so close to our actual plot we worried he might be bugging us, it was also written in an IC style by someone who was clearly a bit delusional, especially regarding himself.

We could have contacted him and asked for clarification, but then we’d have tipped him off about what we were planning. In some LARPs they do some or all the character creation in a pre-game workshop, but that’d be too late for us as we like to be prepared. And also, we are of the opinion that we go to a LARP event to roleplay, not to workshop some roleplaying we’ll do later.

So what we did to solve this was workshop it in character. We sent out an NPC on the Friday night while we were plot-lite as one of Dr Ed’s followers from Cambridge to chat shit with him about the universe. In doing so she was able to get a better handle on what GAMANHA was actually meant to be so she could play it the next day.

Of course, by the time we actually came to run that encounter Dr Ed had already done everything it was going to ask him to do and was in the process of turning himself into a cat by overdosing on magical Ecstasy, but I digress.

Transfiguration

Tom’s character as a transdimensional cat wanker (his word, not mine). Note the 10 stickers on the lanyard indicating he’s taken enough drugs to kill a small village. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Actually running all this out

Here’s what we had in place to make this happen:

  • Not actually 50 encounters. There were a few who never submitted a character and after chasing several times we assumed anyone left was either not going to show or didn’t want personal plot and was happy to be along for the ride. There were a few others who we lost over the weekend due to illness, childcare issues etc. But we definitely ran over 20 trips in the tent, and about the same number through NPCs in the live environment, or in a couple of cases we delivered an item that the trip ran through
  • 100% hand picked crew to ensure everyone there was good at what they were doing and caused no dramas. This included actual theater people to manage sets and many old hand larpers who can be relied upon improv a good scene
  • Every encounter in a numbered envelope stating exactly what props, costume and paperwork it required. If it was small enough to go in the envelope it went directly in there
  • A separate hived off team to independently run the tent encounters. The head of set dressing created the timetable for that end of things with an eye to minimising set dressing changes
  • Minimal sets where only the props and furniture that were actually significant to the trip were present, with clever use of signs and so on to indicate where it was taking place. I cannot speak highly enough of Chloe Courtney’s set dressing talent 
  • Nick Livesey to find the players and get them to the encounters IC (he does a similar job at Hades I understand, and therefore has experience)
  • The award winning Clare Evans to run the monster room, and she is hella organised
  • No more than 2 NPCs per encounter, except I think for one where we needed multiple refugees and Serbian military (did I mention this game was pretty grim in places?)
  • Very little concern for “balance”. Some of the trips were harder to “win” than others. Some of them were pretty tame, some of them were potentially lethal for the character involved, or anyone else who tried to intervene, although there was no (immediate) permadeath in Fairyland. Not everyone’s psychological baggage was created equal – we respected the characters as written

Not every single one of these worked. Some fell a little flat, some the players failed at spectacularly, but we really did have a very high hit rate on these trips. And that, my friends, is the story of how we ran out 40+ personal encounters in 11 hours while our main plot bounced around like a barely controlled dodgem.

And of course the PA blasted music the entire time, because in Fairyland, you literally can’t stop raving.

No Messing

Actual footage of Clare when she suspects “someone” might be messing with her encounter timetable. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Fae, Fairies, and Fairness

Sarah Loughin

The second guest post from David Kibblewhite, writing about the 90s nostalgia and fairy horror game Fairyland he recently ran with Clare Evans and Martyn Sullivan. This time, talking about fairies.

Fairy Rings

In Fairyland, our antagonists were fairies. Basically they kidnapped the players after they danced in a fairy ring. Pretty trad stuff really; the fact that we dressed it up as a mid 90s rave was undeniably cool, but it doesn’t automatically make the story any better. Many role playing games both live and otherwise contain fae, but I believe language is important and wanted to maintain the sense of childlike wonder that fit with the whole rave/escapism theme, so we banned the words fae, fey, fae-realm, arcadia, and so on. The creatures were called fairies and the place they lived in was Fairyland.

The Rave

We called the rave Fairyland IC too. This is Greg Spencer’s artwork on the IC flyer

Everyone Hates Fairies

About 9 months ago, when we were already well into developing the ideas for Fairyland, I saw a big thread on Facebook where a LARP writer was soliciting opinions on the fae. There were over 200 comments, most of them saying in one way or another that fae are shit.

A lot of this appeared to revolve around depictions in club systems, where the organisers would show up as fae whenever they needed to do something that ought to be impossible within the rules, or to have an invincible NPC for the purpose of acting like a dick and getting away with it. Done badly, of course they’re terrible.

Some People Just Don't Like Fairies

Some people just don’t like fairies. Photo credit Beth Dooner

And players hate an enemy they can’t kill, but then a lot of these games are (power) fantasies, where the players expect to be set appropriate challenges and ultimately, emerge victorious. Our game was described as broadly a horror (I’m still not sure it really was a horror) and we did say in our style guide,

“this will be about party-goers trying to deal with a situation for which they are woefully unprepared.”

And also,

“This is not a game where you can kill your way through every problem.”

So it was not necessary for us to remove those elements of the fae that make them difficult to kill; in fact I would say if you do that you no longer have fae, just sparkly LARP monsters.

This Kind of Nonsense

Our players were not well armed enough to deal with this kind of nonsense. Photo credit Beth Dooner

There were also a lot of comments about how they needed to be alien and not think like normal people. That’s all very well, but you can’t just say to someone, “you’re a fae, so think alien”, you need to tell them how they do think, and in a way that they, as a human, can pull off in a field.

So what you need is a very clear idea of what your fae actually are and how they fit into your metaphysics. Just saying they are fae is simply not good enough because if you do that then people will just bring all of their baggage from other systems, other stories etc with them and you will get generic LARP fae. I believe the moment you say the word “fae” people will start to do this automatically, which is why we said “fairies” instead.

Since the fae can’t be defeated in a straight up confrontation with mortals, you need to find their weaknesses, or play them off against one another. So we decided that in our game the fairies themselves would be in conflict, mostly covertly, and thus a lot of the game would be spent talking to NPCs, teasing out their motivations and learning what options you actually had.

Exploitable Weaknesses

You can defeat the fae if you learn their weaknesses. For example, Titania was weak to being blown up and decapitated. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Fairy Courts

So because the event wasn’t difficult enough to juggle at this point, we split them into multiple courts with varying agendas. We developed the ideas for these courts concurrently with writing all the player specific stuff, and so we started picking out the common threads from the player characters and making types of fairy we could associate the characters with.

It was at this point that we decided that Fairyland was a place of pure ideas that couldn’t be directly perceived by the human mind, and that we wanted always to leave open the possibility that the player characters were on some level still at the rave and none of this was literally happening. Hence we wrote each of the courts up as a single aspect of humanity, but without any of the other bits, and we dressed them how we thought that ideal was best represented in a 90s aesthetic.

The players were the counterpoint; as whole, complete people they could achieve anything in theory, whereas fairies were all bound into their roles. This played into a key theme of the event, that of rebellion versus conformity.

The courts were:

  • Easter’s Garden, nature as provider and nurturing Goddess. Wants to look after you, but also to just be content and never strive for anything, which I think is really horrible. Easter was a woman in boho festival gear
Easter

Easter thinks you’d be a lot happier if you stopped striving for stuff all the time. Photo credit Beth Dooner

  • Wild Hunt, representing the fear of nature. They were elves in military gear who just wanted to hunt you for sport. The wild hunt were Easter’s protectors also, but had betrayed her because they wanted passage to Earth for their hunting
Martyn Sullivan

The Wild Hunt. Heavily armed fuckers. Photo credit Beth Dooner

  • Knockers, representing the inexorable march of progress. Zero-One was the latest incarnation, a cyberpunk-style scientist. It had recreated itself after every major technological revolution – my favourite historical name was Spinning Jenny. They’d had their barony taken away because Titania hated the industrial revolution, but once in motion it couldn’t be stopped.
Paperclip Map

Zero-One always seemed to be seconds away from saying “Welcome to the Internet; I will be your guide”

  • Bacchanalians, representing artistic inspiration, hedonism, excess and nourishment of the higher mind. People in offensively bright clothing with goat horns. The kidnapping of their bard, Orpheus was a key plot point.
Andy Raff

Silenus, baron of the Bacchanalian court (Andy Raff as an angry drunk). Photo credit Beth Dooner

  • Cats, representing selfishness, vanity, and petty cruelty. An NPC in cat raver gear (it’s a thing). They had sneaky routes into places they weren’t technically allowed, which was how they’d hidden Orpheus, and how contact with Puck on Earth was possible. All cats on Earth were part of this court.
Vicky Brewster

Why is the Cait Sidhe making this face? No-one knows. Photo credit Beth Dooner

  • The Royal Court, representing inherent power and control. The establishment. Titania was the only fairy we didn’t 90s up, she looked like a traditional fae, entirely in white, with wings. Oberon was a bit more of a mix of looks, traditional fae noble stuff, but he definitely had Converse on
FairylandPic20

Oberon is not impressed with the way things are going here. Photo credit Beth Dooner

  • Goblins, the lowest rung on the social ladder. They represented the working class, striving to better yourself, and the inability to do so within a rigid system. The rank and file were redcaps in bucket hats and matching T-shirts so they looked like football hooligans – they were Fairyland’s police force and foot soldiers, because the most vulnerable often fight to protect the systems that keep them in bondage, and it’s always the poor that do the dying when war breaks out. They had two bosses in suits and red bowlers who were more like the Kray twins/Croup and Vandermar, and they were led by Ebeneezer Goode, who was a fussy office manager; about the highest station a goblin could reasonably expect to reach. Puck was their king in exile, disguised and embedded with the players.
Steve Alonso and Dave Henderson in bowlers

Croup and Vandemar, or just Hale and Pace as Da Management? You decide. Photo credit Beth Dooner

  • Finally there were the Cottingley sisters (who in reality are neither sisters nor called Cottingley), Puck’s abomination half fairy children, living in a fort in the woods marked “No fairys (sic) allowed”. They were lost children, and had come to represent that concept, which is why they did things that you’d expect of people younger than they actually were, like live off of sweets. They didn’t believe they had fairy powers, but they did, which was why no fairy could enter their fort (they established their rules), and why they were immortal and regenerated, which was also something of a giveaway.

 

Heartstrings

One of the Cottingley sisters, tugging on some heartstrings. Some unchewed scenery still in shot. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Away with the Fairies

When the players woke up in Fairyland on Saturday they each had a mark on their face or hands, associating them with one of the courts. This was their current nature, and where they were destined to end up if nothing changed, as Fairyland tried to reduce everyone down to fit them into one of its neat boxes.

Our fairy baron NPCs gradually rolled out during the day and were briefed to support the people with their court marks on them. If they played up to that, the fairies would basically consider them one of their own. Thus these NPCs acted more like egregores at Empire, supporting the players, poking them toward the plot  and leading without leading. The difference between them and Empire’s egregores were a more aggressive style because it was a one-off, re-briefings throughout the day if they felt lost, and roughly 1-3% of the player numbers to support. Clare knows how to cast a team like this; she has done it for Empire and mostly the answer is exceedingly carefully.

Leah Tardivel and Chris Penney

Empire’s egregores are rarely able to support players this closely, and maybe that’s a good thing. Photo credit Beth Dooner

A key thing here is that we wanted to avoid too much blue on blue; we did want the players to remain the stars of the show, with our NPCs there to bounce off. This was partly influenced by my memories of Harry’s event A Place of Safety, where he essentially ran two events at the same time, an LT Vipers campaign event, and a freeform political game about fae courts. Both events were good, but I’m not convinced either really benefited from being run in the same place at the same time as the other. But hey, you have to experiment, otherwise we’d still just be fighting waves of goblins respawning from behind trees.

Conan Daly

ELF SNIPER uses BOW against PLAYERS WITHOUT SHIELDS. It’s super effective! Photo credit Beth Dooner

How did all this shake out? There were a couple of fuckups if I’m honest. The Wild Hunt were a little too effective at engendering fear in the player base and starting to pin the players down more than we wanted, so we reigned them in until they were mostly lone archers in the woods randomly sniping ravers with arrows. Easter as a nurturing figure was too traditionally female a role and we should have done something to subvert that. The royal court didn’t really appear until very late on so the people with their mark felt they’d missed out on cool game, which is probably fair. But overall I think we did something that really worked, making the players feel under constant threat and giving them plenty to think about, whilst helping them have a good time at the event, and without falling into many of the usual fae pitfalls.

So yeah, it took a lot of thinking about and designing, but I think the fae we did weren’t shit LARP fae, and to paraphrase Nora Black’s IC opinion of folk siding with various fairies,

“They are beautiful psychopaths and none of this will be what you think it is”

I’m pretty happy with that.

Ben Burston

I’ll leave you with Ben Burston’s character, making the face you should make when hearing a fairy promise something. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Tomorrow we’ll have a third part about characters, backgrounds, and using them to build your game.

 

 

 

 

 

Starting Slow and Switching Gears

David Kibblewhite

Another guest post, this time from David Kibblewhite. Recently promoted to “Head of Plot Team” at Empire, David has also just run his first independent live roleplaying game along with co-conspirators Clare Evans and Martyn Sullivan. This is the first of hopefully several essays about the experience of running that game – 90s nostalgia and fairy horror game Fairyland.

Initial Information

We advertised Fairyland as something that could broadly be described as a horror. We also told everyone it would be set at a rave in 1996. We could easily have had players arrive at the rave and then immediately started messing with them. However, we had the sense that a lot of people booked our event primarily because of the setting and thus we wanted to deliver the dance party itself, without a lot of disruption from plot and so on. Either approach is OK in my opinion if it fits the story you want to tell; it’s just a case of being up front with players about the style and structure of your event so they know it’s something they want to do or not. On our website we said:

“Friday night is going to be the rave itself. We hope that there will be dancing, waving of glowsticks and that this will be enjoyable in and of itself. There will also be some distinctly weird shit going down.

Clearly the whole weekend can’t be one long dance party so there will be a change of pace on Saturday, which will be about dealing with the aforementioned shit that has gone down. Without giving away the plot, this will be about party-goers trying to deal with a situation for which they are woefully unprepared.”

Which was about as much info as we could give without ruining it.

Something Bad Coming

People who know OOC something bad is coming but IC are getting ready for a pleasant evening. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Normality

We were advised that if we wanted to do horror then we had to spend a while establishing what normal looked like before subverting it. We knew that Saturday would be the meat of the event, where all the plot took place. We knew that the rave itself was going to somehow transport the players to Fairyland. We knew we were going to subject the players to three things:

  • Personal, private, psychological horror
  • The existential threat of not being able to return home
  • Constant threat of physical violence

We decided to put only a very small amount of weird in on Friday, and so the whole night became about foreshadowing. We were told by a few people that horror shouldn’t time out overnight, and we ignored that advice for a few reasons.

Firstly, we wanted an intense, pacey Saturday (there was some pretentious theming here about the relentless beat of EDM, heartbeats and so on) and believe that well-rested players and crew help facilitate that.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that the overnight part of horror events is always good value for effort, and finally we weren’t running a haunted house with creeping dread and things that go bump in the night; we wanted a clean break between happy festival atmosphere and nightmare hellscape.

This Is Normal Now

Mildly sinister – show, don’t tell. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Friday plot, therefore, was a very light touch. Al Bevan, playing our disguised Puck organising the rave, was present with the players from time in. Our DJ, sound engineer and two photographers were also IC, and had briefs that contained a bit of interesting information that could be teased out (they were instructed not to blurt this stuff out).

There was some slightly sinister stuff going on. For example, there were posters up that said “Robin shall restore amends” in blue (the colour of fairy blood in this game world), which doubled as a promise of revenge and a gratuitous Sandman reference.

There were suspiciously high-quality E’s being dealt that were causing people to go a little bit loopy, and when a PC chemist analysed them he was told they were 50% methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), and two other compounds that he couldn’t identify without a point of comparison.

Do Not Trust This Man

NEVER TRUST THIS MAN. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Vision Things

We wanted to run some non-interactive vision encounters, as people started to slip out of reality and into Fairyland. Therefore we had all our Fairyland locations set dressed already, but restricted the players to the barn where the rave was taking place, and the little festival campsite they’d built next to it, then strategically parked our van across the bottom road so the players couldn’t go the wrong way and see stuff they shouldn’t.

We had established a mechanic called the figure in white, where if such a figure tapped you on the shoulder you would follow it, and onlookers would rationalise this. The rave started at 7:00 (we tried to do a soft time-in but it didn’t really work and I had to do a pre-game brief and call time in so people would all go IC).

At 8:30 I ran the first vision and we sent the figure in white to find the most wasted PC he could and bring them to it, where they witnessed some NPCs interacting in Fairyland. We did this 5 times, over the night for one player each, introducing different NPCs and previewing different information each time.

Hilariously, the players tended to not take in the information in these encounters, because they were roleplaying being off their faces on drugs. We also hoped that these would encourage players to do the drugs as a route to cool plot stuff.

Inside, Magic

Outside, normality. Inside, magic. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Storytelling

We were reliant on Puck to drive a lot of interaction on Friday. He had two real objectives: get as many players as possible to take his magical Ecstasy, and make sure people danced, as the dance and drug taking was basically one long transportation ritual. He played a blinder, doing things like buying up the downers that were on sale from players and flushing them down the toilets, and using movement to get people on the dance floor (our NPC has theatrical experience and it showed).

Other than that we had two main ways to tell the story. The first was the music; if you listen back to John’s DJ set in the context of the event, it is very obvious that it’s a ritual. Thankfully, escapism is a key theme of dance music and it’s replete with songs about literally travelling to another dimension, but in the final hour or so it becomes really overt.

The second thing we had was pick up and play roles for our crew. We were expecting a great deal out of our crew on Saturday, so we wanted them on Friday to be able to experience the party, but as with many of our players, many of our crew had no frame of reference for how to enjoy a rave. Therefore we wrote a few archetypes of a couple of bullet points each for people that might be at the rave, which gave them a starting point for RP.

We were careful here to send out some stuff that would provide interaction for our players who were not physically capable of dancing for extended periods. Using a combination of Puck, the music and these pick up and play NPCs, we were able to put our thumb on the scales to get the outcome we wanted out of Friday, which otherwise ran basically like a freeform.

Hole in Reality

Dancing their way through a hole in reality. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Dance

11:30 I had finished running the visions and was able to get up to the rave to dance a little myself, and get ready to ref the pre-time out scene. The atmosphere in the barn itself was amazing by this point, and everybody was having a great time.

At midnight we had some static and radio tuning noise come in over the PA – our first indication that something was seriously awry. Players reacted well, knowing that time-out was nearly upon them and playing into the fact that we clearly had something up our sleeve.

The music then changed into a down-tempo acoustic cover of one of the songs that had played a few minutes previously (sung by Daisy Abbott and Jude Reid), the lyrics of which were key plot points for the event.

I then proceeded around the room showing players a piece of A4 on which I had written “SLEEP”, and they then slowly got comfortable and pretended to sleep. Other refs caught the players who were outside in various groups; this part also went relatively smoothly.

The song played for a further five minutes, throughout which the players were timed in, asleep, and then I called time out only after silence descended. This was a really powerful moment for our players; to be gradually amped up over the course of five hours and then be made to sit still and listen to a lullaby moved several people to tears.

And thus the stage was set for the next day, they had danced themselves unconscious in standard fairy-tale fashion.

Sleep

SLEEP. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Characters

What we didn’t really plan but that worked amazingly well was the Friday night rave as character workshopping. Everyone knew their character and some people had established links via Facebook, but over the Friday they had two communal activities to bring them together; dancing and doing drugs.

Dancing is a great group activity, but some players will always find it difficult to cut loose with that kind of thing. The drugs helped, as they came with a roleplaying effect of extreme empathy and a loss of inhibitions. This gave players the excuse they needed to have fun, and because we weren’t pestering them with plot they felt safe to do so.

Thus Friday was incredibly effective at allowing them to build up their IC relationships with each other; relationships that would be put to the test on Saturday when we put them under pressure.

Mostly, They Just Danced

Mostly, people just danced. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Tonal Shift

On Saturday morning we wanted a sudden and dramatic tonal shift. We wanted the players to be scared, and we wanted them to know in no uncertain terms that they were on enemy territory, that they were unwelcome interlopers and and that they were profoundly unsafe.

We achieved this through shock and awe.

I started with the pre-brief, by reiterating our procedures for both non-combatants and mental health safety calls, then I also told them how they should go about getting phys-reps done for any grievous wounds they might incur over the course of the day (we had Anna Reid doing FX makeup for this). Then I got them back into the positions in which they’d ended the previous night and briefed them to keep their eyes closed on time in, until I made a second call.

This couple of minutes was partly so we could move a large prop (the sword in the stone) into sight. On time in, we had the PA play Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness (Original Tweekin’ Acid Funk Remix); a piece of music that starts chilled, but with a deep bassline that they’ll have felt in their toes, and that gradually builds in pitch and urgency.

After a couple of minutes, when it felt like the right point in the music I woke them up and they spent a couple of minutes wondering what was going on, and trying to draw Excalibur while a ref patiently said no many times.

Maybe We Can Reason With Them

Maybe we can reason with them? Photo credit Tom Garnett

A couple of minutes after they woke up however, we rolled in the redcaps. We had an idea that we wanted the event to look a little bit like an old-school sanctioned event (this, in combination with running in Candlestone was meant to increase the nostalgia factor of setting in the 90s), but that if you tried to play it like one it would chew you up and spit you out. Hence why we started with a camp attack.

In a traditional fantasy LARP, a camp attack is a bit of a staple; it is generally designed to give the players a fight to keep them entertained; done well it’s exciting and fun. If your player characters are not knights and wizards however, if they are weekend partygoers with very few weapons and no combat experience, then a squad of people advancing on them with axes is suddenly not exciting and fun, it is downright terrifying.

Our redcaps were dressed in matching knock-off Kappa T-shirts with Killa on the logo and GOBLIN ARMY written on the back. They had matching red bucket hats. They were armed with axes, clubs and bits of pipe. They looked, in short, like particularly well armed football hooligans, and had been instructed to act like them.

They got into an altercation with an NPC who had blood packs to release and hacked him down with axes, then the one of them with a white hat started dying it red in his blood. Two of the protestor characters had spades and fronted up to the monsters, so they also got brutally hacked down, and refs were primed to apply blood to faces and such.

Several of the other goblins were then swaggering around shouting things like “Does anybody else want to be a fucking hero?”, and the music was still playing throughout, loudly.

The whole scene was incredibly unpleasant to watch, even for me, and I wrote it. It was an allegory for every attack by an in group on an out group ever, every act of oppression by the state on someone whose face doesn’t fit.

This wounded NPC served as an in-character demonstration of the game mechanics we couldn’t explain in advance without spoiling the twist; you couldn’t die as long as you remained in Fairyland, and the fairy Ecstasy would heal you at the cost of your sanity.

Maybe Not

As it turned out, no, reasoning with them did not work. Photo credit Tom Garnett

End of the Prologue

This moment was essentially the end of the prologue. Everyone knew who their characters and each other were because we’d allowed them the evening ball gowning, and now their agency had been nuked from orbit. Of course the site was now free for them to explore, and they spent the rest of the day learning, and gradually rebuilding that agency until they became the rulers of the realm. We didn’t do everything at that event right, but that night of workshopping and foreshadowing, followed by that massive, sudden, tonal shift – I honestly don’t think we could have done it better.

Whose Spade Is This Anyway

Nora’s character realising this is not going to be the carefree weekend away she planned, while behind her, who gets to carry a spade becomes suddenly quite contentious. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Music and Setlist

John Newton’s music including (Daisy and Jude’s original piece at the end) and the setlist can be found here.

Come back tomorrow for part two.