More Than Five Random Thoughts While Prepping a New D&D Game

Next weekend I have volunteered to run a short game of Dungeons and Dragons (fifth edition) for two friends who are veterans and a ten-year-old novice. I have spent a lot of my life running Dungeons and Dragons, but haven’t as yet touched fifth edition. I actually started a couple of weeks ago, working up a simple campaign story based very loosely in Al-Qadim (a setting I have fond memories of from the 90s), but then I got cold feet and chucked it all in the bin and started again with something a little more accessible but a little less high-fantasy with fewer genies in it. I’m still not sure I made the right decision.

The challenge is that not only is this a new system I am somewhat unfamiliar with, being very late indeed to the party, but that it’s also the first time I’ve run anything for any of my players. What if they hate my style? Oh I should probably have mentioned that one of the players is my boss, one of the others is his daughter, and the third likely player is m’colleague the company finance director. That’s enough to give anyone the twitches, I reckon.

The Light

I discarded the religion I’d spent two weeks tweaking in which astral demigods protected the world from demons because I couldn’t get twelve of them I liked and lets be honest only someone playing a Cleric cares about this shit anyway. But then I got bogged down for a fucking hour trying to come up with just theright names for the six virtues of the Light and then another hour trying to arrange them in the correct colour order so that none of the ones I liked was stuck being yellow or orange.

What I should be doing is just running something like Lost Mine of Phandelver straight out of the box. Or at least just rubbing the serial numbers off Keep on the Borderlands or Palace of the Silver Princess. Probably the latter, because the former could be mildly problematic. Also not really designed for three players to roleplay as opposed to just hit things with hammers.

In fact, I could just run Eberron… except I know that one of my players is into heroic fantasy and Eberron is a bit specific and also if I’m honest I daren’t run Eberron because if I do I’ll want to run more Eberron and getting three people in the same place at the same time has been challenging enough without trying to run a proper Eberron campaign and… I forget what I was saying.

I’m an emotional wreck, as you can see. Full of D&D themed turmoil. So I decided to take a break from deciding what the main religion looked like and write this instead.

I Feel Like I’m Betraying Fourth Edition…

Cards on the table. I didn’t hate Fourth Edition D&D. No, fuck it, let’s be honest. I enjoyed fourth edition D&D, both running and playing it. Once some of the hard edges had been smoothed out. I mean the Players’ Handbook was a clusterfuck of worthless dailies, and the Monster Manual had no idea of its own maths, but pretty soon it got kicked into shape. I liked that everyone got to do cool things. I even enjoyed paying a non-spellcaster in it. Even in fights. Reader, I did not enjoy playing a non-spellcaster in third edition, second edition, or first edition. Not in any way.

Then Joe Rooney ruined it by pointing out it was basically Descent. But ignore that.

This new system looks okay though. There’s still a little bit too much spellcasting in it, but it looks like the power levels of the various classes are a little tweaked and I could imagine myself playing a fighter or a rogue in fifth edition without feeling utterly useless.

Fewer Stupid Numbers

I’ve obviously not absorbed all the rules but I appreciate what seems to be an emphasis on doing things in different ways rather than just adding numbers to them. Fewer modifiers to remember, basically. I rarely have problems with modifiers, let me be clear. I write everything down neatly so I generally know what my bonus to any given roll is without help. On the other hand, being around players who don’t do this drives me up the fucking wall. I often had to make a real effort to be very calm when saying things like “did you remember your +2 for flanking” or “remember to add +1 damage for your skill” or whatever.

Here that seems less of an issue. You either have advantage/disadvantage or you don’t. The number of numerical bonuses and penalties seems much smaller.  There’s plenty of places where I’ve looked at something and nodded thoughtful – like the fact Expeditious Retreat doesn’t change your movement number it just lets you move normally but as a bonus action. I approve. Letting you do things in a different way is always cooler than just letting you do the thing you could do anyway but with a 10% improvement to efficiency. Likewise, rolling two dice and taking the best (or worst) already feels like its a thousand times better than getting a +2 or a -2 or whatever.

The Problem of Pregens

I worked out early on that I would probably want to do pregens for this session with the understanding that if we continue they can be tweaked. But obviously that also gave me the fear. Pregens have two very solid advantages – you can start playing almost immediately and as GM you know what everyone can do which keeps things fluid.

However it also runs the risk that the players are less attached to them, feel less like they’re playing a character they care about and more like they’re playing a board game, and worst of all have to deal with that disappointed “oh, I was hoping to play a tiefling druid who was also a hermit from the Algarve” thing that happens with pregens.

Plus there’s all the problems around how you lay that information out so it is intuitive for people who are not you to access. I used to do this a lot back in the day – we’d regularly play through short three-encounter games on a Monday evening that were designed to test out new bits of fourth edition for example and I’d have as much fun putting together (say) a dwarf shaman and finding a nice picture as putting the scenarios together. But that was when my printer was in the same postcode as my computer which is sadly not the case at the moment.

I Don’t Like Halflings

I spent several years toward in the early 10s playing a halfling in a fourth edition game. Ulmo Riverrunner, Halfling Rogue and all around good-guy. Always upbeat, cheerful, friendly, and ready to help the needy.

Eberron Halfling

I like Eberron halflings because I like 98% of things about Eberron and 99% of things about dinosaurs. But I don’t want to run Eberron right now and that’s fine. Really it is.

I fucking hate D&D halflings mind. I don’t know what it is about them. Maybe I’m just a hipster who enjoys disliking Tolkein. Again don’t misunderstand – I really like Eberron halflings (and not just because Eberron is an incredibly rich and enjoyable D&D setting). I like the dinosaur riders, I like that they are the best healers and run the best inns, and I like that they are the best mafia. Also did I mention the dinosaurs? But the awful pastoral sneak-thieves… maybe I was just badly injured emotionally but that fucking kender at an impressionable age.

I don’t hate Birthright halflings (where they are alien invaders) although I could never quite work out why they were a playable race given there are like 50 of them in the whole world or something.

I didn’t entirely hate Dark Sun halflings either actually, even though I seem to recall that they were a teeny bit cannibal pygmy for my liking. But then I didn’t really like Dark Sun much so there’s also that.

I’m prejudiced against hobbits is what I am saying.

Most likely I will either delete halflings and replace them (probably with Eberron shifters because I like shifters), or reskin them as fucking rat people or something. Or just not mention them because that is also an option; remember you’re building a game that will run maybe two sessions if you are lucky not a three year campaign Raff! FFS!

Encounter Creation is Giving Me the Fear

I like to make encounters. The most fun part of third edition for me was probably statting encounters. So many lovely numbers of play with, most of which would never matter because someone would cast a spell and the encounter would just end (yes I’m bitter and irrational what of it?) I really enjoyed building encounters in fourth edition D&D as well – thinking about the roles of the various creatures, coming up with cool elements to the encounter, working out how to present it and keep it moving and so on.

This new edition… I’m not familiar enough with the flow to be entirely comfortable just winging it so I’m following the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and it feels… wrong. It doesn’t help that I’m statting for three combatants – in fact I’m very tempted to break with my usual strategies and send a competent NPC with the group just to push the numbers definitely to four because it feels like the maths here is aimed at four players and falls apart at three. The multipliers it suggests to effective experience point totals for multiple creatures feel… clunky… to me.

It is reminding me of the bad old days of third edition where a “suitable encounter” was one creature that would get whaled on by the party and just die, or a horde of smaller creatures that would hit on a 20 and do pitiful damage before all being annhilated by a single spell. Makes my skin crawl just thinking of it.

Still… the flatter number curves in terms of THAC0 and AC seem to be suggesting that encounters even with lower challenge rating creatures will be less swingy and frustrating. The damage dice being rolled on some of these abilities are worrying me a little.

Nobody wants to run a short game in which everyone dies in the first encounter. Oh well, let’s see how that goes.

I Like the Delicious Flavours and Toothsome Crunch

There’s plenty of flavour here, which is very nice, even if it is a bit Forgotten Realms in places. The Monster Manual in particular makes me happy. I like that they’ve kept some of the concepts from fourth edition (clean, interesting statblocks, where most entries have one or two cool things) but accompanied them with some nicely detailed flavoursome write-ups of what these monsters are and what they are for and what makes them cool.

Still too many spellcasters though, but at least they don’t have ridiculous reams of spells including all the minor little utility things nobody ever cast. I can get behind that.

Look At Its Wiffly Little Tentacles

They’ve come a long way from when I first met them and fell in love with them in 1980-something. Did you know they also come in kaiju flavour?

I like that dragons are no longer giant scaled winged sorcerers by default. That always made encounters feel odd to me. I’m not even going to complain about the inclusion of the metallic dragons at this point (Eberron’s good influence on my thinking again) although I still think the old D&D versions were better (who can tell brass, bronze, and copper apart? Nobody can. Shut up).

I’ve checked out a few of my favourites. I like what they’ve done with wights and shadows. It’s nice to see creatures like ghouls having the “save ends” quality that I enjoyed in fourth edition and stopped fights with creatures like them and carrion crawlers being fucking tedious and awful.

I’ve made a note on my world notes to remove the aberration class of creature. It’s not because I dislike them, but because I want to try something different and it is too easy for me to slide into Bad Habits when it comes to tentacles. Carrion crawlers and rust monsters appear to be monstrosities these days, which is nice.

Plus I’m going to keep the genies. Just reskin them and change their names and… Dammit Raff! Stop trying to build a campaign setting and prep a scenario!

I Can’t Help Myself

I’m running one session as a taster. I’ve plotted out the basic scenario – it will involve a magical boat and a frozen lock because apparently Zomboat has crept into my subconscious and laid eggs there. If it works out, and we play again, I’ll cannibalise the first scenario idea I had (basically The Diamond Throne but with genies).

I just need a scenario with a handful of encounters; a couple of roleplaying scenes, a puzzle or investigation, maybe three total fights.

I do not need half a dozen well-fleshed out religions designed to promote conflict, a sweeping political landscape, a dozen slightly tweaked races and classes designed to highlight certain niches, a detailed explanation as to where these genies have come from and why undead exist, a decision about whether the Evil Empire is run by hobgoblins or tieflings (and whether I flip the elemental association of devils to cold to make them fit better with the slightly Norse-ish flavour I’m playing with in my head), nor to worry about exactly how many dwarvern noble families there are in the Fundindelve given nobody is going to reach the fucking place until at least the second scenario.

For fucks sake Raff! Have a word with yourself!

Fundindelve

I’ve spent too much time thinking about this place, given that the first scenario is supposed to end without the characters ever having seen it.

Self Indulgent Rubbish About Gazelles

Overly Wordy Set-Up

I tried something different for my walk today.
Actually before I go any further – I’m a fat bastard and my exercise regime largely consists of walking and climbing up and down the four flights of stairs between the filtered water on the ground floor and the attic garret that I occupy on the third floor. When I walk, I listen to Zombies, Run.
(It’s technically a running app, but I use it for keeping me company while walking. It is fun in 30-minute chunks like a radio drama but with added sweating and dodging cars).
Also this is technically a Facebook post but it became pretty clear it was way too long so I thought fuckit, this is why we have the WordPresses and if I put this on the Patreon it will no-doubt cost me Patronisers. Plus next time I go back to Patreon I will need to get my finger out and write the last of the pieces I owe which I am finding very hard to complete due to it being about player sense of entitlement. It’d be easy to write, but not easy to write in a way that doesn’t have the word “fucking” every other sentence. I digress.
Anyway. Walking. I’m meant to be keeping more active as part of the ongoing plan to not die. Unfortunately, I now live half way up a hill in Penrith, a town made up entirely of hills as near as I can tell. The first three-quarters of every outside walk is fine as it is downhill or level. The last quarter is hell as it is uphill and, as mentioned previously, I am a fat bastard.

New Plans and the Bloodthirsty Gazelle

Wallpaper

It’s nice enough wallpaper but its not a patch on the scenic streets or the need to stay vaguely alert so you don’t get run down by a taxi on the narrow pavements.

After checking out google maps and realising that my initial crazy plan of heading uphill so that I could come downhill at the end and this make everything 25% less painful was… well even basic maths would suggest this was a flawed strategy. And everywhere I go I’m either going to have to climb a hill at the start or at the end and I’m not in the mood for hills unless there is an errand in the middle that makes the hill wortwhile.

So instead I got back onto the deeply misleadingly named “gazelle” which stands halfway up the house.
A gazelle is a massive construction of metal and plastic which is a walking machine. You stand on the skis and you walk. It’s pretty straightforward. In the case of this particular gazelle, you walk while staring at a wall and hoping you don’t accidentally smack the radiator with your naked elbow. They you have a shower. Then you feel good about exercising or something.
I’ve had some problems in the past with the gazelle. The very first time I tried it out – stupidly in my bare feet – it tried to kill me. It soon became clear that like an evil piece of clothes-washing-machinery from a Stephen King short story it requires regular blood sacrifices before it will let me use it. I’ve definitely broken a toe, and twisted an ankle trying to use it. Shut up. I have.
It’s okay once you get started. It’s just really, really boring.
The other problem (aside from its attempts to kill me) is that I struggle to combine it with the usual Zombies, Run walking regime which is why I stopped using it and went back to plan B (not exercising unless we were out of bread).
I like the way Zombies, Run is put together normally – in episodic chunks with space between to listen to music or to think or just look at the scenery. Penrith has some nice scenery and I like listening to music so that’s been working out well – apart from the way the awareness of that fucking hill sucks all the joy out of the last ten minutes of the walk.
Recently I’ve been using the time between story segments to plan stuff and think about games and whotnot rather than listen to music. Things like how I can say “players are entitled little shits sometimes” without actually saying that, and also how to spin that into four thousand words. Saying it another six-hundred-and-sixty-six and a bit times is not going to cut it.

The Tedium of the Short Distance Walker

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work as well on the gazelle. The scenery – a wall – is not very engaging. I’ve tried turning my head and looking at the doors on the landing, but they quickly lost their appeal. I’ve peeked through them. I know what’s in there. I can’t see it form the gazelle.
I’ve tried convincing little-black-cat Truffle to keep me company but I found her unblinking stare too judgemental and made her go away. Plus she would insist on sitting on the stairs behind me. I could feel her judging me but unless I turned round to check I was never sure if she was actually still there or whether I was chatting to the air like a crazy person.
I tried shutting my eyes and almost immediately fell off the gazelle because apparently my sense of balance when hanging in suspended plastic skiis is dependent on me being able to see what I’m doing. Also it didn’t work to keep me engaged.
So in the end I stopped using the gazelle. It still tried to kill me once a month or so, usually late at night when I was trying to creep quietly to the bathroom, past the in-laws bedroom door, without waking them, because I am considerate and everything.

I Hate Being Bored and I Can Punch Suns

Today though – having abandoned my plan to use a hill to ruin the first 25% of the walk and thus the entire rest of the walk rather than just the last 25% – I hit on the idea of balancing my tablet on top of some boxes and watching a video.
To be fair, I came to the idea of watching videos on a tablet late in life. Intellectually I knew that you could do this, and that my tablet was basically a tiny flat computer. Realistically, I felt the idea of doing anything other than reading on it was probably witchcraft and letting the side down. And I can’t read while walking on the gazelle – the distraction would just create an opening with which it could make another attempt to suck on my innocent blood and bone marrow.
But I’ve slowly been converted to the idea of treating the tablet like a tiny portable computer, and since I’ve recently joined the early twenty-first century in watching videos on the YouTubes –
– wait have you heard of the YouTubes? There’s all these videos online, literally hundreds of them, and some of them are not awful! I’ve been watching some about games and stuff, and occasionally short horror movies. Its ace!
– I decided to employ all my maths and engineering prowess to prop the tablet up on top of some boxes and watch a Shut Up and Sit Down review. The nice thing was that I could tailor the video in question to how long I wanted to exercise for. In theory, it’s not that much different to listening to Zombies, Run. But in practice it should be more engaging.
Obviously, I need to pick the video carefully. Narrative causality will ensure that if I watch anything dubious one of the in-laws will wander past just as some fat bastard called Electronic Arts a cunt. Or, worse, if I listen to anything musical I’ll just start singing along (which is maybe the real reason I don’t want to walk listening to music while around people who may be judging me silently).
Thankfully, Shut Up and Sit Down (who I had recommended to me by a friend yesterday) are very family friendly. They also look like grown ups which is nice. And more importantly for purposes of this experiment their reviews tend to be between twenty minutes and half an hour long.
This is ideal – because it means that I can’t use stopping to find a new video as an excuse to stop exercising but can also set myself an achievable goal that I know is going to come to and end in twenty-five minutes or whatever.

Some Thoughts About Scythe

The video I picked was about Scythe, which my boss claims is his favourite game. Let’s see if I can embed it here.

(EDIT TO ADD: Okay so that worked. It’s not very aesthetically pleasing but it worked. I shall put a gold star on my weekly “gained a new skill” chart. Even though the skill was “click a button and paste something”. Its still a skill. Shut up).

The review makes some very good points that helped be crystallise my own feelings about it. I don’t dislike the game, but I’m not in love with it the way some people are. I feel bad saying that out loud, given I know several people of my acquaintance really enjoy it.

I’m also terrible at it which doesn’t help, obviously.

The game is beautifully designed – the way you move the little cubes around to reveal advantages and reduce costs is inspired. The visuals are cool. The pieces are cool. The theme is cool.

Look At That Lovely Board

Look at that art. It’s lovely. Genuinely lovely and evocative. How can I not love the game as much as I love the moody Steampunk walkers juxtaposed with disinterested farmers? What’s wrong with me!

But it leaves me cold inside. I don’t get into it the same way I get into Spirit Island (my current favourite game) or Architects of the West Kingdom (my next favourite game right now). I don’t find myself roleplaying it – its engaging enough but only in the way something like Power Grid engages me. I know in my heart right at the get-go that I am not going to win it, and so instead amuse myself setting myself smaller goals to achieve.

I guess its because I find it hard to get into the fiction of the game – which is not the case with the games I enjoy. Which is ridiculous right? The whole thing is dripping in cool visuals. It just somehow doesn’t feel as if the game is really about stomping around with giant mechs and a bear – even though it so patently is. I find it hard to put it into words.

My problem with the game, which I identified during the recent Team Building and Seasonal Review session in Preston, is that it feels like there is one too many things for me to keep track of. Or possible two.

I forgot there was a special points scoring objective (which is understandable as its on a card on the far side of the board) but I also forgot you scored points for territory (which is unforgivable). So I lost, like a machine designed for not winning.

Which is a shame because I really want to like Scythe. I should like it. Mechs and bears and alt-universe steampunk Eastern Europe!

But its also a plodding game which can move glacially slow, which then transforms into a game where suddenly it seems everyone else has (metaphorically) put go-faster stripes and jump-boots on their mechs and recruited the population of a small country to harvest oil for them. At the same time it sometimes feels like every decision is weighted with too much potential for failure and I hate that. I don’t mind choices being significant but I hate it when a single mistake – rather than a cascade of poor choices – can completely fuck your game for you.

Give me a good worker placement game any day, basically.

Result

Scythe aside, the outcome was that the experiment worked! Twenty-five minutes of almost constant walking on the hateful devil machine, enough to get a bit of a sweat on. I was engaged throughout, and didn’t really notice the time passing, which is ideal.

My next plan is to do this every day this week and see where it goes from there – assuming I don’t run out of good twenty-five to thirty minute videos.

I mean I know the NHS recommends thirty-five to forty-five minutes of exercise a day but the stairs count as at least ten minutes exercise a day in my opinion.

And the best part about this if I can make it work is that I don’t feel I need to reward myself with a Snickers after I’ve done my walk because instead I get to have a warm shower, so I’m winning not once but twice.

At this rate I might even attempt a trip out to the swimming baths in the new year – although combining “standing in a pool bobbing gently” with “watching YouTube videos” may prove to be a challenge.

Perch, Eidolon Sky, and Random Flavour

Context

Perch

Art by Adrian Stone taken from the Spire RPG core book

I’ve been running a game of Spire on and off, using the published campaign frame Eidolon Sky as a foundation. My players have just been to Perch – a shanty town built on the side of the vertical city – to follow up on a lead. As part of my “light prep but still prep” I wrote down a bunch of things I thought they might see in Perch while they were exploring. This also helped me cement my own ideas about the place making it easier to improvise on the fly.

Because it is late and I’m in an odd mood after writing a rambling Patreon post about boxed text and Matt Fucking Mercer, I have decided to take the list I made and put it here.

Because who knows – you may be running a Spire game and want some random flavour for a trip to Perch.

I don’t think there are any spoilers for actual Eidolon Sky so it should be okay to read.

If You Go To Pigeon Street…

  1. Taught and loose ropes. Ropes creak, especially when under tension. Tied to each other, anchored in stone, holding things up. Dangling in the wind. Frayed or cut – hinting at some past disaster.
  2. Eyelets and hoops to hook a rope or cord to. Bit of rope attached – short end because it has snapped or been cut, or long under tension – whats on the other end?
  3. Half a building the other half of which has just vanished. Hasn’t stopped people living in it but they’ve set up tents or leantos against the remaining walls.
  4. A gutter channeling rainwater into a torrent that pours off the side of Spire. Someone higher up passes a bucket through it interrupting it for a moment.
  5. Three or four young drow hanging upside down from things idly swinging back and forth just chatting acting like its normal. Their heads are at head height.
  6. A glimpse of someone moving quickly across the ramshackle roofs – a hint of a cloak and nothing else. Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of drow? The Bound know…
  7. Sudden awareness of being watched – what was taken for a chimney stack or gargoyle is actually a drow woman in a leather harness, half face masked with a red scarf, watching the party with crimson eyes
  8. A great shadow passes overhead – a majestic Skywhale is coming in to the Skymarket. It’s lit up purple and green magelights, and circling around it are drow mounted on megacorvidae.
  9. A little shrine set into a doorway of a building that is no longer there. It depicts a weird long-legged owl. Closer examination shows it has a crown (this is Stolas, god of astronomy and drugs). The statue is in a shadowy area and there’s no offerings.
  10. A pathetic junkie curled up in a doorway – theres no building just a door. He’s tied one arm to the doorframe. His arms are a mass of scabs where he’s been scratching, and when he holds out his hand for alms the first finger on his hand is missing just a stub. The remaining fingers are cupped like a cracked bowl.
  11. Nets set across the street creates a barrier. Some birds are already trapped in them. The nets are being tended to by sullen drow with hooks and things tied to sticks.
  12. Three ropes create a makeshift bridge across a gap. They creak and groan but hold peoples weight – just. A Knight or other heavily armoured character, or a hyena, may need to find another path giving thee option to split the party up temporarily.
  13. A street comes to a sudden stop. It continues below, but you have to slide down the roof of a building to get to it. Its pretty clear that this is a path people take – there’s a knotted rope to climb up or down.
  14. A sudden strong gust of wind sets bells, beads, ribbons, and cloaks dancing. Tugs at hoods and coats, greedy, trying to steal them. A drow is caught by surprise and stumbles, but manages to catch their footing – just in time.
  15. A blanket laid out covered in knives, mismatched boots, bags, locks, lengths of chain and rope. A male drow in tatters sits on the blanket, and while he seems amiable on can spot the four drow on the nearby roofs watching the players like a hawk. This could be an informant (Jessamy) or a merchant selling items that were once gods. The rug/blanket is a god and almost imperceptively shifts colour when people stand on/look at it.
  16. A one-eyed stray cat nosing around some rubble. It sits down and begins to wash itself as the party come near. If they approach it rubs against them. It’s ribs are showing – its obviously not eaten in a few days).
  17. A drow man strips naked (or nearly so – he wears a red cloak it appears). He is heavily tattooed. He waves to the players then steps over the edge. He hangs below by a slim cord connected to his ankle, swaying in the wind. The wind catches the ropes attached to his back by metal rings and makes them dance around him like wings.
  18. A hooded gutterkin is filling a bucket with rocks. It stares at the players from its one ruby eye, and may come out of the alley to look at them as they walk away.
  19. A stream of noisome effluent falls past, filthy and stinking. There is laughter from up above. Someone may get hit or an Idol might gracefully avoid the stream demonstrating their magical nature.
  20. A one-eyed black-and-white magpie sits on a pile of slates tapping snails and breaking their shells. It watches the heroes as they go past. One of the snails nearly escapes as the thing focuses on our heroes but at the last minute it grabs it in its beak and smashes it against the tiles,
  21. SLANT: A tavern built on a slant. The stools and tables are bolted down and have straps on them. A few drunks slumber slumped forward but kept upright by the straps. There’s rope bridges between tables. Fat bartender with purple eyes is bored of people looking for information, cuts straight to the chase.
  22. A rope bridge that has seen better days, frayed and with wooden plans rotted away. The ropes however are adorned with ribbons and bits of scrimshaw that clatter in the wind. Despite its great age and decrepit appearance, it will hold the heaviest weight as long as nobody messes with the ribbons.
  23. Two women sit on a bench weaving rope together, passing a pipe of something fragrant between them. They peer suspiciously at the heroes, their conversation falling silent. They pretend not to speak a common language if addressed.
  24. Creeping black vines grow up and over a building, strangling it. They almost seem to be holding the structure together against the side of Spire.
  25. Urchins peeling away lengths of ivy from the wall of Spire, putting it in baskets on their backs. This will be used to make rope. The urchins laugh and joke and take crazy risks but as second-generation Perchers they move with surefooted grace and confidence despite their ragged clothes.
  26. A woman is talking to her door, whispering and touching it with her fingers, and tying little flaglike ribbons of bright material to the nails set into the jamb. She is engrossed in her work. Occult will suggest that the door is watching the players?
  27. A peddlar in a leather coat is selling doves, pigeons, and sparrows which cover his back in a load of wicker cages. Keeps up a constant patter “Do you want a sparrer? Got a crow if you want just like mother used to cook!” When someone buys it, he wrings the bird’s neck and wraps it in a piece of hessian and hands it over. A few sten are changing hands but its mostly little items. Old Bailey as cockerney barrer boy.
  28. A flock of bats fly across or along the street, wings beating lie thunder. People cover their heads or flail at the air. They tangle in hair. Everything is covered in bat droppings. People curse.
  29. A couple of drow lean over a crumbing wall silently. Suddenly one moves, throwing a small net attached to a rope over the side. He quickly reels it back in, triumphantly showing off a bird or bat.
  30. A despairing wail is heard. A chunk of stone falls past, followed by a drow. There’s a moment of silence, and then people go on about their lives. Some of them touch their ropes and mutter prayers.
  31. A couple of younger looking drow are clustered together leaning over something that has their complete attention. These are drek addicts who have a bird with a broken wing. They’re tormenting it with sticks and getting off on it. They’re too addled to interfere if anyone tries to stop them.
  32. A grey skinned drow, lower face covered with a scarf, hooded, is watching the players pretty obviously. If they approach she scrambles up a rope and disappears. This is a snapper from the Gris gang. Potential hook to the gang.
  33. A man is asking people if they have seen his daughter, he is clearly distraught. She is Olla Virrn and has been missing for a week. He can describe her.
  34. A crudely drawn poster of a male drow with a name (Luven Yust) and a request for information. The poster is old and torn.
  35. While off the beaten track, crunch on some ash-stained crude glass vials. Drug paraphernalia. Poking around or showing interest my reveal odd geometric graffiti.
  36. Four Gris gang members tie a drow woman’s hands and ankles, put a bag over her head, and toss her over the side. She’s a drek dealer. May lead to a standoff and a change to meet the Gris gang.
  37. A forty-foot ladder lashed in place with regular ropes. It may creak and strain under the weight of anyone in heavy armour, and again allows a temporary party split. Someone may be coming down it, maybe a whole line of people on their way somewhere.
  38. As above but there are five young drow at the bottom or top who demand a toll from the heroes. At the bottom they are insolent and can be intimidated; if at the top they threaten to push climbers off (stress to reputation, blood, silver all appropraite).
  39. Scaffolding up against the side of Spire or a bigger building has been seperated up with curtains, canvas, old sacks into lots of smaller “rooms”. It’s like an open-plan block of flats. People are sitting, working, talking, sleeping. Ladders connect the levels.
  40. Music drifts out of a doorway – washboard and upturned bucket variety. Investigation finds a bunch of people in relative good humour working making cord and string. They seem happy enough and relaxed – they’re all malak users because why not? The guard never come here. Contrast to the otherwise grim surroundings. If we need a hunt drop in a Grangou (Morlek) to help out for a price.
  41. A wall of knives – short blades all presented in the same way. Nailed with nails on either side of the pommels and blades holding them like crucifixes almost. These are deaed or unlucky knives. There may be weird offerings here.
  42. Heroes are on a gantry when it suddenly shifts with a great groaning or creaking. People panic, grabbing on to things. Someone may fall and need saving. Then it settles down and the fatalistic people here kind of shrug and just keep on about their business.
  43. A little house made out of a massive upturned basket with a doorway cut in it. Either its very cramped or the inhabitant is a gutterkin. The basket is from Skymarket.
  44. A little farm of mushrooms and moss, fed by a constant damp trickle of water from above. The drow who tend it have no idea where the water comes from and don’t question it. It’s been coming down for ten years at a constant rate. Maybe its canal water?
  45. An open market, surprisingly busy. There are no stalls – its more like a collection of barkers, peddlars, and dealers who keep all their goods on their person. Some Gris gang members are watching over it – there’s some people openly selling malak and similar non-drek drugs.
  46. A “suspension bridge” – a long mess of planks and metal that is supported by ropes. Moving along it makes it sway from side to side in a scary way. There’s no way to pass someone, so if there’s some people coming the other way someone needs to go back – will it be the heroes or the other people? What if they’re people the heroes do not want to see?
  47. People tearing apart a ramshackle wooden structure with crowbars, saws, and their bare hands. They have a hand wagon. This wood will serve one of the great boundary fires that help protect from the sun with their clouds of smoke. The labourers will be chatty with people who pitch in, and surly at people who give themselves airs and graces.
  48. A corpse – a drow or a human – tied with ropes between two buildings. Nobody pays much attention. A makeshift sign round their neck tied on with rope reads “MURDERUR”
  49. A knotted rope drops from above. A lithe drow climbs down it onto the same level as the players. They tug at the rope a few times, then whistle some odd notes through their teeth and the rope suddenly drops down into their waiting arms. They grin, and quickly reel it up and move quickly away in another direction.
  50. A pair of muffled drow in heavy hoods are pushing a handwagon absolutely full of dark rope. Sat on top of it is a drow egg. They don’t have a midwife they can entrust their child to while they travel to the city to sell this week’s crop of rope for a handful of sten, and they daren’t leave it behind.

PATREON FURY

Or, the Long Road to Patreon

Over breakfast this morning I looked into what, were it an episode of the godawful Big Bang Theory, we might call “The BT Hub Enablement Project”. Or, to put it another way, getting a Patreon.

TalesFrom

The only reason I’ve even got a Patreon login is so I can enjoy period investigative occult drama with regional accents.

Immediately (unsurprisingly) I started to bleed from the nose and had to go have a lie down in a dark room with a wet Maelstrom crew t-shirt over my head.

Given I’m kind of used to using WordPress now, I looked at how to put some kind of monetisation bollocks and it seems there’s an easy plugin that takes care of it through witchcraft … but to do plugins I’d need to upgrade to a business plan. Which as near as I can tell means paying WordPress  2.50 a month rent which is fair enough. But now I need to raise like 35 quid a month. That’s literally 35 people all playing a quid to read me ramble about why we’re changing Swim Leviathan’s Depths so that the Big Whale is only available to phone at certain times of the day.

Obviously I already donate to a couple of creatives – and I’m happy with my wash in general. But at the back of my mind is the nagging suspicion that if I just stopped contributing, that’d cover the internet but that’s austerity talk and we’ll have none of that here thank you very much. Even though it would literally be at least 78% easier than doing the Patreon thing. Never mind the actual writing regular stuff.

That’s one of the two bigger worries of course. At the moment I’m mostly doing this as and when I get inspired and that’s lead to sporadic content generation. I managed two months of daily updates and that proved to be a challenging schedule to keep up. I also write for my day job, and after a day of wrestling adjectives into place on a Wind of Fortune do I really want to (notionally) come home and do some more adjective wrestling? Obviously that’s a rhetorical question as putting adjectives in front of nouns is literally the only skill I have and I’m obviously doing it for fun as well as profit.

The other worry is the nagging suspicion that what I do has no value. I’ve not even got a short story in an Amazon Kindle Unlimited collection. Sure in simple word-count the boss and I have written around sixteen short novels over the last four years just in terms of Winds of War and Winds of Fortune but the quality can be pretty variable. I think. I mean the bit where I thought the recent Winds of War were terrible but people queued up to enthuse about them still makes me do my what-the-fuck face when I think about it. Its like live roplayers are just as keen on excuses to froth as to complain or sutin.

Nagging Voices and a Lifelong Commitment to Easy Mode

HomerDemons.png

Don’t be taken in by the wings on the guy on the left. He’s on his way to a fancy dress party. I call these two “nagging doubts” and “reasons you definitely shouldn’t do anything ever”.

What else? I got the PATREON FURY prompt in November, and I’d planned to use it to write down all the reasons I wasn’t going to get a Patreon anyway but kept putting it off. I know several people who do Patreon but they are all people who produce stuff. Audio dramas, artwork, photography, roleplaying game crunch – all of which require assets that cost money. Wheras putting nouns and adjectives together costs only time and a wee bit of your soul and that.

So I guess “internet access” now counts as an asset I need to do things with? It’s still not in the same league as construction paper, sellotape, recording studios, and whatever it is people use instead of exciting dark rooms full of photographic chemicals and red lights in this digital age.

Other reasons not to do it.

I’ve already touched on content and value worries. Then we have spellchecking. Ever since the cat managed to somehow fuck my spellchecker I have to move anything I write in OpenOffice onto another platform to spell check it – and I’ve never been a big fan of spellchecking because that’s just the kind of (lazy) maverick I am.

Also easy accessibility. One of the reasons I started up on the WordPress was so I’d have somewhere to put my … essays? … about Empire and live-roleplaying where I wouldn’t have to run them past the Boss first but could also link to them on the Facebooks if I needed to. So obviously I’d want to set up a Patreon in such a way that at least some of the content is then made public an amount of time afterwards – and that’s almost always going to be the only content anyone sane would be even slightly interested in (the Empire stuff). Nobody is paying to read 250 words of prose, even if there’s a nice picture I’ve ripped off the internet.

And another thing – some of the stuff I was planning to put up is tabletop roleplaying related. Is it ethical to write something like (say) “Who are these academic drow and what are they doing?” or “Twelve random bits of colour for Perch” and then put it behind a paywall even temporarily. Fuck, is it even legal? I can probably find out but that’s just another thing on the task list moving this out of Easy Mode and into Effortland.

Oh man. Critics. It may surprise you to know that I’m sometimes a bit sensitive to criticism. I’ve been torn since I started that I get almost no feedback on the stuff I write here unless I cross-post it to Facebook (in which case the nagging voice asks why I don’t just put it on Facebook in the first place and stop pretending). I get some – but I have to downplay my response to it because of that back-of-the-head awareness that if I pay too much credence to it it will be that much more painful when someone tells me (for example) that I’m too ciswhitemale to have an opinion on diversity in live roleplaying. Once people are paying, I am (in the words of one old friend) pretty much their bitch.

What if I, say, the Usual Suspects start sending Angry E-mails to the Boss about me putting Empire-related content somewhere that paying PeeDee customers can’t see it? Is it appropriate for me to preview stuff I’m working on for my empoyer on a Patreon even temporarily? What if it leads to … conflict! I never signed up for dealing with actual complexity!

I’m also intimidated, if I can be honest for a moment. I read things other people in my vague area of expertise write and compare it to my own rambling stuff and it makes me feel complicated emotions. With the best will in the world, I am not the kind of person who is comfortable talking about “diagesis” or “bleed” or “narrative structures”. I get mildly dizzy whenever I mention “emergent narrative” even. What I do is not on the same level as an ongoing audio drama series or professional live-roleplaying photography or beautful art (or even occasionally disturbing art), or prolific tabletop roleplaying content creation. Never mind the assorted YouTube creators whose videos I watch on a morning with my Coco Pops when I should be checking the work calendar.

The Loving Support of My IT Department

As I write this, my IT Department (my partner who hates being called my IT Department but doesn’t read anything I write  so it’s fine) has just asked me what e-mail address I’m linking my Patreon to so it’s all got a bit real all of a sudden.

(And don’t get me started on the shivers caused by realising I’ll have to semi-regularly check e-mail if we do this. I hate e-mail even more than I hate telephones).

This is largely her idea – well hers and Harry Harrold’s. He has been poking me about exploring Patreon for about a year – I think it’s part of a revenge plan arising from the bullying I participated in around the Musketeer game he’s running later this year. Harry has a blog of his own incidentally which you can find here. It talks about live roleplaying like its a real ting and has regular guest posters. Heck even I’m on there somewhere. Now I think of it I can’t help but notice that what he doesn’t have is a Patreon of his own despite being an organiser of high quality award-winning live-roleplaying games himself. Huh.

Anyway. My partner has now gone from “you have nothing of value to say” to “we’ve got a BT Hub to pay for” and if nothing else it’s this refreshingly straightforward attitude like this that keeps me grounded. Also now I am the sole earner in the house for a bit, we apparently need to “milk every penny” out of me so we can continue to dine on vegetarian spready cheese and wholegrain crackers and such.

I’m sure she says things like that with love.

So as she is also my Legal Department (it’s a full time job looking after a Raff), she’s ben reading terms and conditions and it looks like the plan is to post stuff directly to Patreon rather than dick about with WordPress plug-ins, and then may be cross publish some of it here after a suitable period of time. That will probably work. Assuming the formatting is straightforward enough.

Dammit. This is all becoming irritatingly real.

The Final Hurdle and the Elephant in the Room

Button

Caption wise I am torn between “Now we are going to take this button and give it to someone you have never met” and “What do your fans call you is a very loaded question mate.”

So there’s 1,500 words containing significant amounts of whinging and self-pity, all dedicated to not confronting the real problem with getting a Patreon.

Specifically, that if I do press that button and put myself out into the marketplace, I’ll have to commit to a single consistent spelling of “live roleplaying”. Given I’m refusing to use either LRP or LARP for various complex reasons (not least of which is that if I write it out in full each time it counts as anywhere from two to three words each time rather than one), I need to work out how many words I’m going to commit to it and where the fucking hyphen goes (if there is one).

Plus I’m going to have to decide which swear words I can use in a Patreon post.

This is all starting to feel too much like hard work, I’m telling you.

Getting Home

Robert hadn’t seen any of the others face-to-face since Eric and Albert’s wedding. Truth be told, he wouldn’t have made the wedding at all had Eric not sent him the cash to pay for the trip to Ontario. He’d felt out-of-place, and hadn’t known anyone else there. He’d half-hoped his sister might have come, but realistically he knew it was not going to happen. At the reception he’d stood in a hired suit against one of the walls nervously holding a bottle of beer wondering what language everyone else was speaking.

Eric had dragged him aside a little later on in the evening and they’d stood on the balcony watching it rain. The day had been very much about Albert, and as far as Robert could tell Eric felt nearly as out-of-place as he did. They’d chatted for a while about mundane things, about moving to Canada, about Eric’s family (who had not been at the wedding). Then Robert asked about his sister. Eric toyed with the neck of his bottle for a few moments before replying.

“I invited her.” He admitted awkwardly. He’d used his contacts in the States to track her down in ’94. She’d made it clear then that she wanted nothing to do with him, and for the most part he’d respected that. He still kept tabs on her, as much as he was able, and kept Robert up to date. He hadn’t heard from her himself since 1992, nobody in his family had. She’d never forgiven them.

Neither of them said anything for a few minutes, just watched the rain. Then, haltingly at first, Eric started to talk about their time Away. He always said it like that. “Away.” So you could hear the capital letter. They talked for about an hour, until Albert came out and Eric immediately changed the subject. Albert was drunk, but in a very good mood, and insisted on dragging the pair of them back into the reception. Robert didn’t really remember much of the rest of that night, and had a terrible hangover when Eric dove him to the airport. Eric did most of the talking.

Albert didn’t talk about their time Away. He hadn’t suppressed it the way Robert’s sister had, he just didn’t mention it, and if Eric tried to speak to him about it, he became upset, and hurting him hurt Eric so he’d stopped even trying. There was an unspoken implication that the decision to move to Canada had been less about the marriage, and more about getting out of America to somewhere that people didn’t know or care who they were or had been. The decision had come after a tabloid had run a story about what had happened in the ‘80s, putting an immediate end to Eric’s political career and prompting a suicide attempt from Albert. Robert didn’t blame them.

“Albert can treat people anywhere,” Eric had said jovially on the phone on the night he’d rung to tell Robert about their decision. “And even the Canadians must need lawyers, surely.” They’d laughed about it. Eric had been a little drunk. Robert had gone out and picked a fight and spent the next few days in hospital.

*

The worst part about it all – actually there were several worst parts. But usually Eric and Robert both agreed that the worst part was that nobody had missed them. For all the subjective time they’d been away, they’d been gone less than twenty four hours when they got back.

Nobody missed them – not those who’d come back at any rate. By that evening the parents of the other two were involved, then by morning the police. Then, after Robert’s sister had spoken up, so were the papers. In the end, they called his sister a liar and Hank and Diana runaways. The carnival was closed down, and one of the roustabouts arrested for some sort of child-sex offence.

It would have been easier if Shelia had kept quiet, but Robert couldn’t blame her. They’d learnt – they’d been taught – to stand up for what was right, and to believe that even if the authorities wouldn’t believe them, their families would recognise that they were being truthful. It hadn’t turned out like that, of course. Shelia spoke up first, and then Robert had had to back her up. Eric and Albert might have tried to stick to the “runaways” story, but what could they do? They’d all been through too much to turn on Shelia.

They’d been a nine-days wonder. Drugs and “devil games” were to blame. The local schools banned Dungeons and Dragons. Some woman wrote a book on them, about their psychotic break and the delusions it had inspired. Their parents moved half-way across the country to get away from it. Robert got into a lot of fights. Shelia got a lot of prescription drugs and therapy. Neither of them had done well at school.

Shelia left home for good the day after her twentieth birthday (twenty-first really. They were all a year older than the dates on their driving licenses might suggest). She packed up her things and just left. She left a note on the table saying she couldn’t be around people who thought she was a liar.

She’d left a second note for Robert on his bedside table saying she didn’t blame him for what happened, but he knew that wasn’t true. She blamed him, blamed him for her decision to come back, even though he knew she’d have chosen to come back anyway. He’d never asked her to look after him, and he certainly never blamed her for persuading him to come back.

At the time it had been the right thing to do.

*

He dreamt about that last night sometimes. Standing beneath the Forever Gate, watching the constellations realigning themselves as the Pandemonicon broke into shards of ice and fire and collapsed around them. They’d won, they’d earned the chance to go home for real. They just had to choose to do so.

The decision had been easy for Hank and Diana, and Robert wondered about that. For all that Hank had spent so much time focused on getting them all home, there’d always been little hints that maybe he wasn’t so sure he was going to come with them. As he and Diana had become closer, they’d seemed to move away from the other four a little.

On the occasions Eric drunkenly telephoned Robert (bi-annually, usually on the anniversary of their disappearance and return, and on a random birthday), it was Hank and Diana he most often talked about. Why did Robert think they did what they did? Were the happy? Did they make the right decision? Towards the end of the conversation, Eric would often ask Robert if he thought the four of them had made the right decision, and Robert could never give him a straight answer.

There’d been hints. He remembered vividly Diana taking Shelia’s arm and trying to talk to her as the light from the Forever Gate became brighter. Shelia pulled away – she didn’t want to hear. Eric and Hank facing off, Hank trying to get Eric to understand why he wasn’t coming back with them.

Nobody really tried to talk to Robert, who was too busy saying goodbye to his best friend. He would have stayed for her, but it would have meant abandoning his sister and his family.

He’d stepped through the Forever Gate full of doubt about whether he was doing the right thing, but he’d been nine years old and couldn’t put his worries into words. The last thing he remembered was Uni standing between Hank and Diana, and the Keeper off to one side, watching. Everyone had been in tears, even the Keeper. His hand resting on the head of his defeated son, he’d held Robert’s gaze for a moment and there had been so much compassion and regret there that he’d nearly turned back.

*

He hated dreaming about that time.

Robert lived alone in a two-room apartment. He didn’t hold down a regular job, barely paid his bills, or his medical costs. He’d joined the army as soon as he was able, served a tour oversees, been discharged on medical grounds. He sometimes wondered if that easy Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis he’d been given was due to his time in the desert, or his time Away, or whether it was just a symptom of being stuck in a world that made absolutely no sense to him.

He got beaten up a lot. He couldn’t stand by. He’d tried to track down others like himself and found Alien Abduction groups with whom he could make no connection. He’d been married, and it’d ended badly. He lost days at a time, just gone, with no idea what he’d done during them but he’d wake up in a strange place with a crippling hangover, usually surrounded by strangers with cracked ribs and bruised knuckles.

The Keeper had said there were other doors between worlds, and he’d spent most of his mid-twenties searching for them without success. He’d received a letter from Terri – a girl who’d spent a little time with them while they were Away – and he’d trashed his car driving non-stop cross-country to see her, only to discover she’d moved on by the time he got there.

He stopped looking when he turned thirty.

*

The evening of his thirty-second birthday, he ended up in the hospital again. Some thugs were beating up a kid in the alley on his way home and he ran straight in to help the kid. He drove off the two thugs and then when he leant over to see if the kid was alright, got stabbed in the gut. The kid stole his wallet and his phone, and left him bleeding to death. He dragged himself to a payphone, called for an ambulance, and collapsed.

When he woke up, he was back there. In the Unicorn fields, and he had his club again. Eric was teasing him about young kids needing their sleep. Hank chastised Eric. Albert – wearing his glasses again – tried to get a bicycle out of his hat and succeeded in producing a winged horse that promptly knocked him down and flew off. Diana and Shelia laughed so hard, rolling in the grass, that tears came.

When he woke up again, he was in hospital. They told him he’d nearly died and there was much discussion about medical insurance.

When he got home, he took a handful of painkillers and rang Eric. Albert answered the phone and they spend a minute or two saying “hi” to each other, like old school-friends who still kept in touch. He chatted for a while, reminiscing about old times.

They were looking into adopting, apparently, and it was going well. Robert made positive noises. Eric took the phone into the den so they could talk properly; about facing down the Enemy in the graveyard of the dragons, about the time Eric was given the powers of a Keeper, about the child of the stargazer and the ridiculous escapade involving the cloudbears. He didn’t mention having been in the hospital, but then he never did.

When he got off the telephone it was nearly midnight. He tidied his apartment, took out the trash, washed his plate, knife and fork, wrote a note in slow careful letters, and got the shoebox off the top shelf in his closet.

He took the lid off and sat for twenty minutes just staring, then picked the pistol up and turned it over an over in his hands, marveling again at the weight of it.

Then….

Then he threw the gun back in it’s shoebox, packed his duffelbag with clothes and dry food, grabbed the baseball bat from behind the door and stopped in the hall in front of the mirror, just looking at himself, making sure he had made his decision. Making sure he was sure this time, at least.

Then he went out, and he didn’t lock the door, and he didn’t look back.


 

This was the first (and for a long time last) piece of actual fanfic I ever done wrote. It dates from two-thousand-something. I cringed more than once reading through it and made a couple of edits but mostly its the same as it was however-many-years ago it was when I wrote it.

Originally, it had a much bleaker ending, but I received good advice and thought about it again, and changed the last paragraph. It was the right decision, I think, now I reread it. It was the first thing I saved when Mark Wilkin suggested grabbing my old writing stuff off LiveJournal to help pad out the newer stuff I was writing for this stupid blog.

I knew I was going to be posting it up this week as soon as I finished reading the first three episodes of KIERON GILLEN and STEPHANIE HANS new comic DIE on the Kindlemachine the other night (following an excellent recommendation from Wrenna Robson). That comic, as this bit of olde-timey fanfic might lead you to belive, is exactly my jam (as I hear the kids say).

I’m still proud of it I think, despite its flaws. Although I’d probably be much more careful about even thinking about touching PTSD today. It’s no “The Problem Of Susan” (which I did not read until many years later and if I’m honest find a bit … problematic I guess. As the kids probably don’t say any more), but I wrote it as a man who ran a lot of Changeling : The Dreaming as a yoof.

So there you go. My homage to 27.5 episodes of the best cartoon show of the 80s (sorry Estéban, sorry Willy Fogg, sorry Dogtanian). If I get enough packing done today I might write some stuff about the source material later.

The Red Hook Podcast

Not writing today. I know, I know. I’m a failure. I blame myself.

Insomnia is kicking my arse; I spent the better part of an hour trying to write something about lying in live-roleplaying and failing. Instead, I decided to listen to a podcast/radio play a friend had recommended. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward on Radio Four. I have no idea ho long it will be available to listen to so you might need to be quick.

If you’re a mythos fan, give it a listen. I’m giving it five out of seven which as we know is the highest rating you can give something. It reinforces my assertion that Lovecraft is most important for the way he influenced other people to tell better stories. Give it a listen why not? There’s a lot more going on here than just an adaptation of the CoCDW.