The Courage of Tamyn Taval: Part 1, Chapter 1

Part One

Shy and Tam

 

1

Tamyn Taval looked at the dead man in front of her, his empty eyes glaring into hers. A moment ago he was alive, but now, he was like a doll, silently staring. The arrow in his throat was meant for her. It skimmed by her cheek, ripping skin.

She ducked, fell from her horse and hit the ground hard. Her shoulder disagreed with that tactic. She rolled and found cover under a fallen tree. From under the tree, she looked back and saw who the arrow had struck. It was Jenns. The big man was holding his throat, the arrow sticking out between his fingers. That was when the second arrow struck him in the chest. He fell from his horse, his neck making that sick sound of breaking bones. He fell right in front of her, his eyes looking at her. His dead doll eyes.

It was less than a breath ago, but everything moved so slowly. She saw more arrows hit the other riders. They fell, too. She heard the screams of the dying all around her. Seven men and five women. The men and women of Count Jonsen’s Courage.

She looked to the woods, trying to find her attackers, but the forest hid them from her. Her cheek began to ache. She touched it, saw blood on her fingertips, and for a moment, she was surprised. She had forgotten the arrow. She tasted something bitter on her tongue. Then, someone whispered her name.

“Tamyn,” the voice said. She looked up and away from the dead man.

“Over here!” the voice whispered.

She found it. Just beyond the body, hidden well in the green. A small man with dark hair and blue eyes who looked like he could squeeze through a beer bottle if he had to. It was Shyver.

“Shy?” she asked.

He nodded. For some reason, she marked that he had no arrows in his throat or in his chest. For years, she would remember this moment, not understanding why.

“Are you hurt?” Shy asked, keeping his voice low.

Tamyn shook her head, not saying anything.

“They were waiting for us,” he said. An arrow flew by, but he did not need to dodge. It wasn’t for him.

She nodded. “Agreed.” Tamyn took a breath. Her thoughts were coming back to her now. “We will deal with that later,” she told him. “We need to get out of here.”

“Who is left?” Shy asked.

She dared a look around. Tamyn saw many bodies, none of them moving. She looked back at him. “Just us.”

“You’re right,” he said. “We need to get out of here.”

Tamyn thought about what he said. They were waiting for us.

She looked at Shy. “Whoever gave us up is also after the count.”

Shy didn’t understand for a moment, then his eyes showed her that he did. “Pull us away from him,” he said.

She nodded. “We have to get back to the castle.”

As she spoke, three more arrows hit the tree she hid behind.

“That is going to be more difficult than it sounds,” Shy told her.

Tamyn looked around. Between her fallen tree and Shy there was only open ground. She could run, but she would be an easy target. She thought for a moment.

She looked for a horse. None within reach. Then, she looked at the dead man. She saw nothing to help her.

Tamyn shouted to Shyven. “Do you have any oil?”

He nodded, ducking back into the green. He came back with an oil pouch. “Here!” he shouted, tossing it to her. She caught it and worked off the top.

She could hear movement in the woods. They were closing in.

Keeping close to the ground, she poured the oil over the fallen tree. As she did, Tamyn thought, My mother would never forgive me for this.

Then, she took out her smoking kit. She pulled out one of the black matches and struck it against the box. Nothing.

More movement. They were closer.

She struck it again. This time, it caught. She tossed the match on the tree and the oil caught, erupting into flames.

And she ran.

She kept low, hoping the fire would cover her movement. She ran fast, pushing against time. Then, when she reached Shy’s tree, she jumped. A swarm of arrows flew by her. She heard shouting from the archers. She looked at Shy and he smiled.

“Lucky,” he told her. “As usual.”

She touched her cheek. “Close this time.”

“We are near Invir Falls,” he said. “We can get horses at the way station there.”

More arrows flew by them, but the archers were just shooting blind now. She looked back at the bodies she was leaving behind. Then, she looked at Shy. “They’re all…”

He shook his head. “We won’t do Count Jonsen any good if we join them,” he said.

She nodded and turned away from the woods. Shy ducked down, running low. She was right behind him.

A few miles down the road, they found the Invir Falls way station. The guard recognized them from when they passed earlier. His name was Reg. Tamyn remembered thinking he was too young to be a guard when she first saw him. That was barely an hour ago. Seemed like a year ago.

“You’re a sight!” Reg shouted out to them. He ran, bringing a flask of water. Tamyn took it and drank deep. Then, she gave it to Shy.

“We need your horses,” she told Reg.

He nodded. “Of course. Anything for the count’s courage!” He ran off to the stable, grabbing saddles and preparing the horses.

She looked at Shy. “I’m going to fix this,” she said, pointing at her cheek. Shy nodded and drank more water.

The way station was small and unequipped. A building with two rooms and a sorry excuse for a stable. They were lucky there were any horses at all. She walked inside, found a washing basin and a mirror. She threw off her backpack and got her sewing kit out. She looked at her face in the mirror.

She saw her father’s brown hair fall down over brown eyes, all covered in dirt and blood. Human hair, human eyes. From under that hair, she saw her mother’s features: high cheekbones and elven ears.

She washed the blood and dirt off her face. When she looked back in the mirror, she saw Shy standing behind her. He was shorter than her, but only a little. Her mother’s blood again. He smiled when their eyes met in the mirror.

“You need help with that?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yes.” Her voice made her sound relieved.

“You never were any good with blood,” he told her.

“I know.”

He took the needle and thread from her thin fingers. His were thick and strong, covered with callouses.

“So why do this?” he asked. He threaded the needle.

She sat down and braced herself. “All the years we’ve known each other,” she told him, “and you’ve never asked me that.”

Shy leaned forward and pinched her skin together. He looked her in the eyes. “You should be drunk for this,” he said.

“One or two sips would do it,” she told him, smiling.

He laughed. “Thin elven blood.”

“Half-elven,” she corrected him.

He smiled. “I know.” Then, he stopped smiling. “Hold still,” he said.

She clenched her fingers against the bench and clenched her teeth together.

He frowned. “This isn’t the first time we’ve done this.”

She sighed. “Always feels like it.”

The needle pierced her skin and she winced.

“So,” he asked again. “Why do you do this?”

“You should be asking why do we do this.”

“All right,” he said. “Why do we do this?”

“The coin,” she said.

He shook his head. “More money doing other things.”

“It’s an honest living.”

She winced again and he put more water on the wound, cleaning away the blood. “Stay still.”

“Trying,” she said.

He put the needle through her skin and pulled it back out. “You still haven’t answered me.”

“I’ve given you answers,” she said. “You just haven’t liked them.” She winced. He tied off a knot.

“Done,” he said. “As well as can be expected considering the circumstances.”

She looked in the mirror. A bloody mess.

“Not your first scar,” Shy said.

She touched it. “Are the horses ready?”

He looked out the door. “Looks like it.”

She stood up. “Then let’s go. The count needs us.”

The Courage of Tamyn Taval: Prelude

Back when I was working on Wicked Fantasy, I wrote a novella set in that world called “The Courage of Tamyn Taval.” Years later, I expanded the novella, adding a whole bunch of new words and some subplots. It’s been sitting on my CPU for a couple of years, not really doing anything. This seemed like a good opportunity to make it public and let folks read through it. I’ll be releasing one chapter per day. Enjoy!

 

* * *

 

THE COURAGE OF TAMYN TAVAL

by

John Wick

 

 

courage

  1. The ability to act despite fear, withstand danger and difficulty
  2. mercenaries hired by a noble, usually to preserve the law and protect the noble’s subjects

The Reign Scholar’s Lexicon

After decades of civil war, the ten Cities of the Reign finally found peace, united as individual city-states. They established a Senate, complete with representatives of each City, to resolve internal issues as well as establish relations with the foreign nations of elves, orks, and others.

A History of the Reign, by Donnington True

 

 

Prelude

Tamyn stood perfectly still. Stay still and say nothing. That’s what her mother told her. Tamyn did as she was told.

The trees blocked out the sky. All she could see was green. Tamyn felt their presence, felt them watching. She looked with her eyes but did not move her neck. The trees spoke in song. She heard it. Distantly, like an echo, or like a voice from the other side of a hill. Their voices in harmony. Deep and low.

Tamyn’s mother stood beside her, holding her hand. Tamyn bit her tongue. She could feel her mother’s nervousness in her grip, right on the edge of pain. Tamyn felt her mother’s fingers trembling. Felt her pulse. Felt the heat and sweat in her grip. She was afraid. All her life, Tamyn never knew her mother to be afraid.

Standing among the trees were the elves. They were taller than anyone Tamyn had ever seen before. Their hair was silver or gold or midnight and fell down as low as the ground. Their feet were bare. Their gowns shimmered like moonlight. They wore swords that did the same. When the first one spoke, her voice was like it was spoken in bells.

“Who comes before us?” the voice said. Tamyn winced. The sound wasn’t painful, but it rang in her ears and echoed for long moments after.

“I am Sylvel, Daughter of Reigyl.” Tamyn’s mother said. “And I bring my daughter, Tamyn.”

“Let us see her,” the voice said.

Sylvel let go of her daughter’s hand and Tamyn knew what to do next. She stepped forward onto the wet, cold forest floor. It was like stepping onto frozen grass. It crunched as she put down her feet. But it was still green. And when she lifted her foot, the grass resumed its shape as if no one had ever stepped there for a thousand years.

Tamyn stepped until the voice said, “Stop.” She did as the voice commanded. Even now, she doesn’t remember how long she stood in that spot, but it seemed like a dream. An eternity stretched into a single moment. She stood still until the voice said, “Go back to your mother.”

The voice ran through her like a cold wind cutting through her bones. Tamyn turned on her heel and ran back as quickly as she could. She put herself against her mother’s side.

“Why did you bring this to us?” the voice asked. The bells were deeper, darker. Tamyn covered her ears, but she could still hear it echoing in her head. She felt her heart pounding against her chest, her belly quaking.

Sylvel said, “She is my daughter. My blood.”

“She is a man child,” the voice said. “Her father’s blood.”

Sylvel shook her head. “No. He is not her father. She has no father. He does not know her.”

“You were reckless with your seed,” the voice said.

Tamyn felt her mother’s fear turn to something else. She felt her mother’s muscles stiffen. Felt her breath get short. She could almost hear Sylvel clench her teeth.

“She is my daughter,” Sylvel said. “And you will not speak of her in that way.”

Laughter then. All around them. Tamyn’s knees shook.

“You dare to speak to the Council of Trees with a threat in your voice?”

“The Council of Trees…” Sylvel said the word with plain and pure contempt. “…does not represent me. My lineage isn’t pure enough.”

“Take your thing back to the Reign of Men,” the voice said. “Take it back to where corruption thrives.”

Tamyn looked up at Sylvel. “Mother?” she asked.

“Do not listen to them,” Tamyn’s mother said. She did not look down at her daughter, only at the circle of elves. “They do not know you. They cannot see what I see.”

Sylvel put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and walked away from the circle of trees. A voice called after them.

“You are no longer welcome here, Sylvel, Daughter of Reigyl. Do not come back until you have cleansed yourself of the filth in your blood.”

Sylvel stopped. She turned to look at the elves and the trees. She shouted.

“One day, you will regret your foolish aristocracy. And you will pay for it.” Then, she turned away, leading her daughter from the forest. Laughter followed them until they hit sunlight.

#

They camped at the base of a mountain, the start of the long and twisting road leading up to the City of Tamerclimb. A city in the Reign of Men.

“It will be a long way up,” Sylvel told her daughter. “But we will find shelter there.”

Tamyn nodded and stoked the fire. She built a small wood structure to hold their pot above the flames. The water boiled and Sylvel dropped herbs she crushed into it. Tamyn wanted to ask about the Council of Trees, but knew it would upset her mother, so she said nothing.

A little while later, a young man approached them, walking along the stone road. He stopped. Tamyn saw his fine, dark hair falling over blue eyes. She thought he looked handsome. He looked at the stew and said, “I have carrots.”

Sylvel gestured for the man to sit. He opened his pack and retrieved three carrots. He offered them to Sylvel and she broke them into pieces, tossing them into the stew.

The man extended his hand. “Oliver,” he said.

“Sylvel,” she said, then gestured to her daughter. “This is Tamyn.”

“Hello!” Tamyn said.

Oliver touched his fingers to his brow. “Pleased to meet you.”

Tamyn kept stirring the pot, making sure the water did not boil over. They all sat quietly until Oliver said, “Going to Tamerclimb, then?”

Sylvel nodded. “We are.”

Oliver sighed. “Not my place to say so, but…” he paused. Tamyn saw his face turn to concern. “There are plenty in Tamerclimb who would give you grief.”

Sylvel looked confused. “I thought Tamerclimb was the home of the palatines?”

Oliver nodded. “That’s true.” He took a flask from his pouch and sipped from it. Tamyn smelled something awful from the other side of the fire. She made a face. Oliver saw it. He smiled and raised the flask. “Whiskey,” he said. “Not for little girls.”

“Smells like it isn’t for anyone,” Tamyn said.

That made Oliver laugh. “Probably true, little one.”

Sylvel said, “Why shouldn’t we go to Tamerclimb? The palatines are sworn to protect the Reign.”

“Exactly,” Oliver said. “Protect the Reign…from elves and dwarves and orks and the rest of the non-human peoples.”

Sylvel shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

Oliver took another swig of his whiskey. “You see, the Reign isn’t exactly friendly to elves. Or orks. Or anything that isn’t human.”

Sylvel nodded. “I’ve noticed. But I thought Tamerclimb would be different.”

Oliver frowned. “It is. In a way. You may find a few who aren’t…you know…”

Sylvel nodded. “I do.”

“But they’ll be few and far between. Most of Tamerclimb hates elves.”

Sylvel shook her head, throwing her stirring spoon into the pot. “Then where are we to go? The elves won’t take us! The Reign won’t take us! Where? Where?” Sylvel tucked her head down and put her hands over her face.

Slowly, and carefully, Oliver put his hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sorry. But Tamerclimb…I don’t think it’s the right place for you.”

Sylvel lifted her head, her eyes red and ready for tears. “Where then? Where can we go? To the orks, maybe?”

Oliver shook his head. “No. Absolutely not. But…maybe…”

Sylvel looked at him. “Yes? Tell me. Please.”

Tamyn saw him thinking. Considering what he would say next. Finally, he spoke. “Jinix,” he said. But he said it, jinx. Something Tamyn would remember.

Sylvel shook her head. “What? Why? The city…”

“City of thieves,” Oliver said. “Yes. That’s what the other Cities call us.”

Sylvel tilted her head. “Us? You are from there?”

Oliver nodded. “I am. Born and raised there.”

Tamyn saw her mother look at the hand on her shoulder, then quickly look down to check her belt pouch.

“Relax,” Oliver said. “I’m not here for that. Besides, I took a vow. Rob no widow or orphan.”

Sylvel did relax, but only a little. “How do you know I’m a widow?”

He took his hand away and reached into the pot, quickly grabbing at the wooden spoon. Took him two tries, but he got it. He wiped his hands on his trousers, hissing through his teeth. “Why else would an elf and her daughter be on the road alone?”

Sylvel shook her head. “All I have learned of the people of the Reign is to not trust them.”

Oliver nodded. “That makes sense. But I hope I have earned a little trust?”

Sylvel looked at him for a long time. Finally, she said, “A little.”

He smiled. “Good. Let me tell you why I’m here. Perhaps some honesty will earn a little more.” He stirred the spoon, preventing the soup from boiling over. “I’m here to pick up something and bring it back to Jinix.”

“What is that?” Syvlel asked.

“My nephew, Shyver.” He stirred a bit more, then he said, “I think it’s ready.” He tasted the stew from the spoon and nodded. “It is.”

Oliver served it out and they sat together and ate. Tamyn listened as he spoke.

“He came here with his sister. But it isn’t working out. She asked me to come get him.”

“She’s giving her son to you?” Sylvel asked.

Oliver nodded. “Seems he’s ‘not appropriate’ for Tamerclimb.” He sipped the stew and made a warm sound with his throat. “This is good.”

“The herbs make the soup,” Sylvel said.

Oliver sipped more. Then, he put down the bowl and reached into his jacket. He pulled out a letter, handed it to Sylvel. “This is from her.”

Sylvel took the letter and read it. Tamyn watched her eyes move over the page. She knew how to read the language of the elves, but not the Reign. Not yet. Her mother folded the note and gave it back to him.

“I understand,” she said.

Oliver put the note back in his jacket then took the bowl back into his hands. “I’m picking him up. Bringing him back to Jinix. Raise him there.”

Sylvel almost laughed. “You’re taking him from Tamerclimb to raise him in Jinix?”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “It’s a funny story.” He pointed at Sylvel with his spoon. “Come with me. We’ll travel together. Better to travel like that.”

Sylvel considered it.

“I thought I’d have to make the whole trip on my own,” he said. “It’d be good to have company.”

Tamyn watched her mother. Finally, Sylvel smiled and nodded. “Yes. We will.”

“Good,” Oliver said. “Let’s finish the stew. I have some whiskey, if you want it.”

“We have a tent,” Tamyn said, her sudden enthusiasm startling her.

Oliver looked at Sylvel. “I wouldn’t presume.”

“It is big enough for all of us,” Sylvel said. “And your nephew.”

Oliver nodded. “All right then. It’s a deal.”

They all ate together until the stew was gone. Sylvel sipped some of the whiskey and made a sour face. Oliver laughed. “Told you. Not for young women.”

“I am no woman,” Sylvel said. “I am an elf.”

“Not for elves, either.” He lit a pipe and laid back, his hand on his belly. Tamyn washed the pot in the nearby river, using sand and water to get it clean. When she returned, Oliver and her mother were speaking. They stopped as soon as she could hear their voices. Oliver began telling stories. Tamyn spent all night listening until she couldn’t keep her eyes open. She felt her mother putting her into the tent.

Later that night, she heard the both of them talking again, outside the tent by the fire. But her eyes were heavy and she fell asleep.

 

Weird Weird West: A Hack of the World’s Most Popular Weird West RPG

Introduction

I turn fifty this year. Wow. Five-Oh.

This weekend, as part of my birthday celebration, I had the opportunity to run Deadlands for Shane Hensley. We were chatting over the internet a couple weeks ago and I said, “I’d really like to play Deadlands.

Shane said, “You should run it. I’d drive up (from Chandler to Phoenix) for that. But it would have to be your own weird take on the system.”

Well, I like the idea of giving away things on my birthday, and I know game designers secretly love seeing what other people do with their own ideas (the good ones do), so I told him I’d run it on my birthday and sure enough, he showed up to play. I threw together a quick system that shared elements with Deadlands, but was certainly not Deadlands. I explained the system to the players and started the game.

As with all game systems, the players and I started making small changes during play. We changed when players could look at their cards. We changed what Jokers meant. I improvised a method of randomly picking characters. And ten minutes after we started playing, I added Flaws (you’ll see them below). After the game was over, we all talked about the game and even more changes we would make.

The system you’re about to read is the system that emerged from that session with a couple of minor tweaks thrown in afterward. It’s fast, efficient and deadly. Really deadly. I think its safe to say that my interpretation of Grit was Shane’s favorite element of the game. For most of the mechanics, he nodded, but when I explained Grit, his eyes lit up.

Special Thanks to the other players at the table: my faithful and awesome regulars Fabien Badilla, Jennifer Todd, and the always handsome Mr. and Mrs. Blessing, Ron and Veronica. And to Jessica, who was making a METRICK $#%@ TON of food for my birthday celebration, listening in, and chuckling.

1: Makin’ Characters

Get yerself a bunch of index cards. This is one of them hipster indie games, after all. Every player gets two: one for a name stand that you fold over and put in front of you, and another for your actual character sheet.

On the character sheet, write down your character’s name.

Then, write down three words or phrases that are important to who your character is. This could be Sheriff, Gunfighter, School Marm, Gambler, Coward of the County, whatever you like. Assign a “1,” “2,” and “3” to your three words or phrases. These are your Traits. The one that’s most important t’ya should be the 3, and then go in descendin’ order.

Next, write down yer character’s Flaw. This is something yer character does in spite o’ their best interests.

Then, get three coins or chips or tokens or whatever to represent yer Grit. This represents yer character’s toughness. Sorta. You’ll see.

Optional Rule: If you feel one of yer Traits, and just one of yer Traits, should earn you an additional Grit, you go ahead and give yerself another Grit token. The House (that’s the GM in this game) has’ta approve yer Trait as givin’ ya a Grit.

Now, write down three things that are true about yer character.

Finally, each of the other players tells you how they know your character. How they met, how they get along, anything like that. And you do that fer each of the other characters, too.

That’s when yer done and it’s time ta play.

2: Playin’ the Game

The standard rule is the House narrates the story. She says what happens.

Whenever a player wants to narrate something, she plays against the House.

First, the House deals a hand of five cards to the player and a number of cards to herself based on how hard the situation may be.

  • If the situation is Normal, she deals 5 cards.
  • If it’s Tough, she deals herself 6 cards.
  • If it’s Harder Than That, she deals 7 cards.
  • If Things Are Damn Grim, she deals 8 cards to herself.

Both the player and House try to make the best poker hand.

The player looks at his hand and can discard 1 card per point in one appropriate Trait. So, if a character wants to gun down a villain, and she has GUNSLINGER 2 on her character sheet, she can toss two cards and the House gives her two more. If she had GUNSLINGER 3 on her sheet, she could ditch three cards and the House deals her three more.

Once the player has her final hand, both the player and House compare hands. Whoever has the best hand gets to narrate the scene.

Grit

Because the House gets to narrate the scene (usually), the House can put all kinds o’ heinous hurtin’ down on the characters. The House can say, “You get a black eye,” or “You sprain your wrist,” or “You twist your ankle,” or any other kinda hurtin’.

When this happens, the player can spend a Grit and say, “It don’t matter none” or some other kinda phrase that indicates their character is too damn tough to be bothered by an insignificant consequence such as that.

Otherwise, the player has to write down the injury on their character sheet. If any such injury comes into play during drawin’ cards, the player has to draw one less card for each appropriate injury.

So, if you got a sprained wrist and you’re tryin’ to palm a card during a poker game, or maybe you’re tryin’ to draw your gun faster than the outlaw who’s about to gun you down, you draw one less card.

Now, there’s one exception to this and that’s guns. Whenever your character gets shot, she dies. That’s it. Dead, dead, dead. On her way up to Boot Hill. You done got yerself a wooden coat. The only way to avoid dyin’ from a gun is to spend Grit, but when you do, you have to describe how the gunshot hurt ya, but didn’t kill ya. And it should be bad. If it ain’t bad enough, the House will let ya know. Just make it bad and don’t put the House in the position o’ havin’ ta correct ya. That’s just rude.

Oh, and once per game, when ya invoke yer Flaw, you get one Grit. Once per game and that’s it.

Magic and Other Weird Stuff

If yer character wants t’have magic or steam powered flyin’ machines or somethin’ else Weird, ya gotta make it one o’yer Traits. When you use it, you do the same thing ya do for any other Trait: ya make a draw with the House. If you get the higher hand, you get ta say how it works. If you don’t, the House does. If the House wins, it don’t mean yer Weird stuff don’t work, it means the House gets ta say how it works. Weird stuff is weird and sometimes it does weird stuff.

Who Goes First?

If there’s ever a question about who goes first, have everybody play high card: just throw out a card to each player and they go in the order of the cards. Or, ya can have the highest hand go first. That includes NPCs, by the way.

When Do I Shuffle?

I shuffle after each draw. I also use two decks shuffled together. You may want to do that or you may not, dependin’ on how much fun countin’ cards is fer you and yer players.

Jokers

If’n ya keep the Jokers in the deck, they’re wild cards.

3: Conclusion

And that’s it. That’s all ya really need. Everything else is just window dressin’. Now go get yer friends and play.

And consider this my birthday present to you. Yer welcome, pard’ner. Happy birthday.

 

The Grey Crane

The Grey Crane and I. Gencon 2016.

If you play roleplaying games, you owe Greg Stafford. You may not even know it, but you do.

Greg was brilliant. He was ahead of his time. You know the Stafford Rule? Every game designer knows the Stafford Rule:

“If you believe you’ve come up with a clever mechanic, Greg Stafford already did it.”

You know how brilliant Greg was? Let me show you how brilliant he was.

In Runequest, one of the things your character can do is sit with a shaman and take a spiritual trip to the God Realm where your character walks in the footsteps of an ancestor or hero. You have an adventure, then return home transformed by the experience. Your character lives the story of the hero, and having that experience, and being changed by that experience, returns to the real world a better person. That’s one of the things you do in Runequest. That’s 1978. While Gary was making sure his falling rules comported to reality in his little tactical simulation game, Greg created the perfect metaphor for what roleplaying games could be: a mythological and transformative experience.

You go into the God Realm, walk in the footsteps of the hero, and come back transformed. Can you come up with a better metaphor for roleplaying games? No, you can’t. Nobody can. And Greg did it in 1978.

Greg didn’t just write about being a shaman, Greg was a shaman. Remember the solar eclipse of 2016? At the end of Gencon, I was able to tell this story without making up a single word. I went to the Chaosium booth to say goodbye to Greg. Unfortunately, I missed him. He was in the air, flying to a secret location to perform a shamanistic ritual during the solar eclipse. I am not making any of that up. It’s the absolute truth. Not a word of what I wrote is fantasy or fiction. Greg was part of a magical ritual during the solar eclipse. I like to tell people that the reason the sun returned to the sky is because of Greg. And you know what? That part of the story is true, too.

He created Glorantha, the greatest fantasy world ever. Yeah, I usually try writing in E-Prime, but I’m not today. Glorantha is the greatest fantasy world ever. You can have your Middle Earths and Narnias and Krynns and Rokugans or whatever else you got. If you don’t know Glorantha, you are missing out. Middle Earth is a fantasy world designed by a linguist. Glorantha is a fantasy world designed by a mythologist. You go get the newest edition of Runequest. And I mean right now. You’ll see what I mean.

And hey, Legend of the Five Rings fans: you owe Greg, too. You know why? Because the original L5R RPG was just me cribbing from Pendragon. If there was no Pendragon, there’d be no L5R RPG. And you also owe him for something else. You recognize this guy?

Yeah, that’s Kakita Toshimoko, the Grey Crane. The mentor and sensei of Doji Hoturi, the Crane Clan Champion. You know why he’s called “the Grey Crane?” Because that’s my nickname for Greg. Greg Stafford is Kakita Toshimoko, mentor and sensei. My mentor and sensei. It was my way of tipping my hat to Greg, letting him know how important his influence was on me. When I published Orkworld, I dedicated the book to him. It seemed only fitting.

And speaking of Pendragon

I love Glorantha. I love Runequest. But Pendragon is, without question, the most important RPG I ever read, played or ran. Not Call of Cthulhu (my first RPG), but Pendragon. It showed me how a game could embrace themes and reflect them as mechanics. Every mechanic in Pendragon invokes an element of Arthurian myth and puts it right on your character sheet. You know how knights sometimes go mad, throw off their armor and run into the woods, vanishing for a year? That’s in the game. You know how knights fall madly in love at first sight and do stupid things because they can’t control themselves? That’s in the game. You know how a knight seems to go stronger because of his fame? That’s in the game. You know how the sons of knights take on the traits of their parents? That’s in the game. And you know how women seem to be playing by a different set of rules entirely? That’s in the game. You name an important part of Arthurian myth and I can show you—on your character sheet—how it’s a part of King Arthur: Pendragon.

KAP showed me the kind of game designer I wanted to be. I didn’t want to make rules that accurately reflected the realities of combat so I could create authentic tactical situations. I wanted to tell stories with my friends. Greg’s games are about giving you mechanics that help you tell stories. And he was doing it before the whole “story game” movement came along.

I look at games like Mouse Guard and I see the influence of Pendragon. (And I know the influence is there because I’ve talked to Luke about it.) And I hear gamers talk about how new and innovative and different it is. Yeah, see the Stafford Rule above. Greg was there first.

I see games like Apocalypse World and hear people talk about how it revolutionary its approach to task resolution is. See the Stafford Rule above. Greg was there first.

He was there ahead of us all. Making games that threw away notions of “game balance” or “simulationism” or any of that crap. Greg was a shaman. And he knew the GM’s job was to take the players’ hands and lead them to the God Realm where they could walk and talk with heroes, then come back transformed by the experience.

I am who I am because of Greg. The Great Shaman of Gaming took my hand and led me to the Hero Realm.

Then, he let my hand free and said, “Go play.”

I was never the same.

I owe Greg Stafford. We all do. And it’s a debt we can never repay.

Ten Years Ago: Santa Vaca & Game Balance

I wrote the following essay ten years ago (2008). I reprint it here without edit or revision. The first time I ever mentioned the phrase “santa vaca” in conjunction with D&D.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was on the verge of release and after hearing so many people talk about “game balance” as the primary design consideration, I thought I’d talk about how little I consider “game balance” when I design roleplaying games. Chiefly because it doesn’t matter.

Anyway, on with the essay…

 

* * *

 

Listening to people talk about the fourthcoming (intentional) edition of D&D, I hear a lot of the same thing: balancing out the classes.

I hear the fighter will deal out the most amount of damage up close while the thief (I will not say “rogue”) deals the most amount of damage from behind while the magic-user deals out the most amount of damage from a distance and yadda yadda yadda.

I console myself with the knowledge that the new D&D design team is finally giving up the ghost. D&D isn’t a roleplaying game; it’s a very sophisticated board game. This is a bit of a paradox because D&D is the first roleplaying game. Yet, it isn’t a roleplaying game. Like being your own grandfather, this takes some explaining.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “What is a roleplaying game?” question. Thinking in the same way Scott McCloud thought about “What is Comics?” in his absolutely brilliant Understanding Comics graphic novel. I’ve been thinking about it because something about the new D&D struck me sideways strange.

I think it’s important to note that any game can be turned into a roleplaying game. You can turn chess into a roleplaying game by naming your King and giving him an internal dialogue. You can turn Life into a roleplaying game the same way. In fact, you can turn any board game into a roleplaying game that way. But you have to add something to do it. You have add the character and his motivations.

I’d also argue you have to add another element. The “character” must make choices based on personal motivations rather than strategic or tactical advantage. This is the “My Character Wouldn’t Do That” factor. The correct move in chess may be Queen’s Pawn to Pawn 4, but if the King decides, “I want to protect my Queen more than I want to protect my Bishop, even though the smart move is to protect my Bishop,” then we have a roleplaying game.

It isn’t that you play dumb. You could make every smart move put before you. But if you actively consider your character’s desires and motivations first, then I think you’ve got what we’re talking about.

But a game like chess doesn’t reward you for making choices that don’t directly or indirectly lead to victory. In fact, no board game does. That’s what differentiates a board game from a roleplaying game, I think. A board game rewards players for making choices that lead to victory. A roleplaying game rewards the player for making choices that are consistent with his character.

Likewise, most board games don’t have a sense of narrative: a building story. Now, please note that I said “most.” Some board games certainly do. And I don’t mean a story in an abstract way that’s up to interpretation. I mean a real story complete with everything we expect from stories. Plot, narrative, exposition, the third act betrayal. The whole kit and caboodle.

Now, some board games have a sense of narrative, but players are not rewarded for moving the narrative forward. On the other hand, the whole point of a roleplaying game is to do just that: move the narrative forward. It has mechanics that assist the players in doing just that.

Therefore… “A roleplaying game is a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.”

(At this point, I predict Faithful Readers to point out that this is not the definition most people understand as a roleplaying game. I will pre-empt this retort by asking them how the majority of Americans misuse “I could(n’t) care less,” misunderstand evolution, and mispronounce the word “nuclear.” Including the man sitting in the White House who fucks up all three.)

This is a working definition. It is far from complete and I’m not entirely happy with it, but it’s a good starting point. Notice the distinct lack of miniatures or dice as necessary to playing a roleplaying game. Some roleplaying games use miniatures and some roleplaying games use dice. Not all. The chief question is: “Can you play a roleplaying game without dice and/or miniatures?” My answer is, “Yes. I have. And I’ve been doing it for at least twenty years.”

(It is at this point I reminded how a certain individual very important to the origin of the RPG told me–to my face–that I wasn’t playing a roleplaying game at all, but I was just a “wanna be community theater actor.” But we shall not speak ill of the dead.)

Dice and maps and miniatures are not neccessary to play roleplaying games. (Yes, Matt. I’m using the word in that sense.) Some players prefer them, but others do not. It is also not neccessary to play a game without them. Do they add to the experience? Yes, they can. They can also detract from the experience, inhibit the experience or limit the experience. But they are not necessary.

What I feel is essential for a roleplaying game–what defines a roleplaying game–is that players take the roles of characters in a game that has mechanics that enable and reward story and character choices. That is a roleplaying game.

And with that definition in mind, I look at what D&D 4 is going to look like and I’ve come to a conclusion: it will not be a roleplaying game.

You can make it a roleplaying game, but in order to do so, you’ll have to add elements that do not exist in the rules. If you play the game by the rules, it is not a roleplaying game.

D&D has mechanics for rewarding you for making the best strategic and tactical choices, but it does not have mechanics that help the players move the plot forward. It has mechanics for movement and damage and healing and everything else Talisman does, but it does not reward a character for making decisions that aren’t focused on winning the game.

At the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy gives up “treasure and glory” to heal the village. He surrenders the magic stone to the old man, completing that transformation from greedy, selfish bastard into the hero we knew from the first film.

In D&D4, there is no advantage in the choice to give up that treasure. Hell, in D&D3 there’s no mechanical reason for him to do it, either. No strategic or tactical reason. He should take the magic stone, add it to his current stash of magical treasures, and go on to the next adventure. Likewise, he shouldn’t have turned over the Arc of the Covenant to the US Government and he shouldn’t have stopped to heal his dad. He should have run out of that temple as fast as his little feet could carry him and cash in on finding the cup of Christ. That’s the only way to get experience points. That’s the only way to “win.”

That’s how you win D&D. More treasure to kill bigger monsters to get bigger treasure.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post in the first place. Game balance.

D&D3 was obsessed with obtaining game balance. The fact that stats are randomly generated demonstrates what a Great and Massive Failure this is. (If we add up our stats and you have even one point more than me, our characters are unbalanced.) What kind of damage can a fighter do before he falls down, what kind of damage can a wizard do before he falls down, what kind of damage can a thief do before he falls down… all of these questions are missing the point. Especially in a roleplaying game. Addressing the symptoms, but not the disease. Hacking at the limbs rather than the roots.

“Game balance” in a roleplaying game doesn’t come down to hit points or armor class or damage or levels or feats or skills or any of that. Game balance in a roleplaying game comes down to a simple question: “Is each character fulfilling his role in the story?”

D&D addresses this issue in a small tactics mindset. The fighter fights, the theif steals, the cleric heals and the wizard is the artillery. Make sure each character’s role–as D&D sees it–is filled.

But what about motivation? What about personal stakes? Let me show you what I mean.

One of my adventures in the RPGA involved a first level thief. He was the son of a tavern keeper who had gambled himself into deep debt. My character learned how to be a theif because he was the bruiser at the tavern. He knew how to pick pockets because he had to look out for it. He knew how to hide in shadows to keep himself out of sight. And he knew how to backstab because he needed to move quietly up to a troublemaker and hit him hard enough to knock him out without starting a fight. That’s my thief.

(I should note that the game itself demands I do none of this. There is no rule or mechanic that requires it and there is no rule nor mechanic that rewards me for it.)

I went on the adventure with my little thief. As we walked, I chatted with the other characters. I was chatty. They chastised me for slowing down the adventure. Not my character, but me. They chastised me for roleplaying. Obviously, I was playing the wrong game.

We killed some kobold bandits, gathered some treasure. The other players were not playing as a group well (despite my suggestions) and argued and bickered the whole time.

Meanwhile, I stole as much of it as I could. When I found something in private, I kept it. I was going to save my father’s tavern and it didn’t matter who stood in my way. Again, acting in character but against the group goal of sharing the treasure. As far as Tav saw it (his name was Tav), these people hired him to do a job. They were rude to him and did not go out of their way to protect him.

At the end of the adventure, I had a large chunk of silver, gold and treasure. I even got a +1 short sword. The fighter didn’t want it. And when the adventure was done, I said, “I retire!”

They all looked at me with disbelief. I reminded them that the only reason I did this was to save my father’s tavern. I got a bunch of gold and a magic sword worth thousands of gold pieces. I was set for life. A peasant sees 1 gold piece per year and I got a few thousand. I was done. I filled my role.

Now, my story about Tav helps me illustrate a lot of things. Almost every choice I made with him was based on his backstory–right up to his retirement. All the choices were based on things that weren’t on my character sheet. The things that, as far as I can tell, are the most important things about a character.

Game balance isn’t about hit points or armor class or spells per day or any of that. Game balance is about helping the player tell his character’s story in such a way that he doesn’t eclipse the other characters. Mechanics that reward and assist players in doing just that.

At least, that’s how I see it.

And I’m still not entirely happy with the definition.

Writers for 7th Sea: Khitai

Art by Shen Fei

 

Ever dream of writing in the world of 7th Sea? John Wick Presents is looking to hire additional freelance writers for 7th Sea: Khitai. Check out our application here.

Knowledge of the materials and setting of Khitai or 7th Sea is not necessary for the application. We’re extending our submission deadline from July 17th, 2018 to August 6th, 2018, but earlier submissions will be considered as soon as they are received.

 

Magic in Khitai

Three people 'kowtowing' to an altar, one woman crying, othe Wellcome V0015171

Let’s talk about magic.

In Théah, Sorcery is quantified and often divided by national borders. The nobles of Montaigne use Porte, and they are the only ones who do so. The Hexe of Eisen and the Glamour Knights of Avalon have distinct powers, as well as power sources, that come with their own unique and separate rules. These rules involve mechanics as well as narrative elements; a Hexe has to deal with the average Eisen’s opinion of witchcraft, while the Avalonian Knight must abide by the knightly code of the Graal.

Magic in Khitai doesn’t work the same way.

As we talk about magic, keep in mind that all of this is subject to change. Basically…

The following is a true design goal. The names and mechanics have been changed to protect the innocent.

Chinese woodcut; Daoist internal alchemy (7) Wellcome L0038977

Power Source

Khitai Magic is much more unified than Thean Sorcery. Different Nations interpret and use this power in different ways, but the font from which that power springs is shared with those of other Nations.

Shamanism involves communion with spirits. A spirit in Khitai is tied to an object, place, or ideal—a temple can have a spirit, as can a sword, as can a family bloodline. These spirits tend not to have goals beyond the preservation and safety of their tethers. The spirit of the monastery wants to protect it, the spirit of the family bloodline wants to make sure it isn’t snuffed out. Shamans can communicate with these spirits, and draw information and power from them.

Alchemy is the mystical science. Khitai holds many secrets in its stones, plants, and creatures. An apothecary studies these secrets, and learns how to combine them to achieve extraordinary results. She can craft a miraculous curative potion, or a terrifying poison. She can make a device that will create a dazzling flash of light to blind her enemies, or a small bomb to collapse a dangerous tunnel. From an elixir that forces the drinker to speak only the truth to a smoke bomb, the alchemists of Khitai study the world in order to master it.

Forbidden knowledge addresses the terrifying power of the things that creep in the shadows. Summoning and binding demons, learning secrets that are whispered in the shadows, or harnessing otherworldly power to return life to the dead, mages who study forbidden knowledge break the natural rules of the world as they see fit. While the shaman communicates with spirits of the natural world and the alchemist knows how to combine and alter substances to achieve unusual results, a person who studies forbidden knowledge discards the rules that bind them to the natural world.

Extraordinary heritage is the power that comes from a bloodline that isn’t entirely human. Perhaps an ancestor fell in love with a divine being, or your mother made a pact for power with a dragon. In either case, a person’s extraordinary heritage grants them abilities that, if they study it and seek to perfect it, grants them a great deal of power. Characters with this power might find themselves ostracized from a community or regarded as a demigod.

壺天聚樂圖-Merry Gatherings in the Magic Jar MET DP202137 CRD

National Differences

Magic in Khitai shares a small number of sources, but the Nations have different expressions of that power. A shaman from Agnivarsa has a great deal in common with one from Han. Both of them commune with spirits, but the shaman from Han does so in a different way—and can appeal to the spirits for different benefits. The two share similarities in their experience that they can bond over, but have enough differences to create drama and a sense of uniqueness between them.

Fair Warning

Those are our goals for magic so far. A lot of things are still in development, but if you’ve read the Quickstart (which you should), you’ll get a good idea of the direction we’re going.

7th Sea: Khitai is on Kickstarter NOW through November 12thTo celebrate the first major expansion of 7th Sea’s world, we’re sharing stories and thoughts straight from the developers. We’ll be discussing people, places, magic, game systems, and what the designers themselves are most excited about! Stay tuned.

Takahashi Rumi

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi - The moon on Musashi Plain (Musashino no tsuki) - from the series 'One hundred aspects of the moon (T... - Google Art Project
The Moon on Musashi Plain, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Takahashi Rumi is the daughter of the Daimyo of the White Fox Clan. Her older brother Rikimaru was always slated to be their father’s heir, so Rumi’s fate was unclear. Married to secure a political alliance, or acting as an advisor for her brother? She was never certain, but she always trusted her father. He expected a great deal of her, and always told her that his aspirations for her were more than anyone suspected.

In her youth, Rumi was an exceptional student and obedient daughter. She studied hard, and always did as she was told. Her tutors praised her attentiveness to their lessons and her overall intellect no matter what the subject. Like most girls of noble birth in Fuso she studied etiquette, calligraphy, poetry and music, but her father also insisted on her instruction in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, and history.

She studied cooking (although her social status would almost certainly ensure that she would never be required to prepare her own meals), military history (despite the fact that such topics were often considered too gruesome for a girl of her station), and architecture (she would certainly never be called upon to design the layout for a castle).

She studied kendo, alchemy, archery, horse riding, and gymnastics. While always studious, she didn’t excel in everything (she is the first to admit that her equestrian skills leave much to be desired).

Then, on her 17th birthday, her father presented her with a curious gift. Once all other gifts had been presented, he met with her privately and gave her a box containing a wooden mask, carved to resemble a fox’s head and painted pitch black.

Then he spoke of her calling.

All of Rumi’s life, all of her schooling and education, had been to prepare her for this purpose. Her father had always planned for her to take up this mantle, and now it was time for her to understand what would be asked of her.

To devote her life to serve the clan, the family, the Emperor. To keep all of them safe from their enemies, no matter who they were, what allies they had, or what their plan of attack was. This was why she studied architecture—in order to understand how a castle is designed, so that she could find where she needed to be. Cooking taught her what could be eaten safely and what was poisonous, and military history educated her on the ways a general views a battlefield so that she could predict their decisions.

All of Rumi’s life, all of her schooling and education, had been to prepare her for this purpose.

Publicly, she would serve her family in the capital as a diplomat and ambassador, safeguarding their political and economic interests. Privately, she would spy, steal, blackmail, listen—and if needed, she would kill. All for Fuso. All for the Emperor. All for the White Fox.

Takahashi Rumi is now the Black Fox. Along with the assassins appointed by the other clans (one from each Clan—always and only one from each Clan), she meets with the Emperor to do what must be done in order to keep Fuso working. Now, however, she suspects that one of the others has been replaced with an imposter. She wants to uncover the infiltrator, but she doesn’t know who she can trust—after all, the most likely culprit is one of the other clans or perhaps the Emperor himself.

7th Sea: Khitai is coming to Kickstarter October 3rd. To celebrate the first major expansion of 7th Sea’s world, we’re sharing stories and thoughts straight from the developers. We’ll be discussing people, places, magic, game systems, and what the designers themselves are most excited about! Stay tuned.