The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories (A Shameless Plug)

The Deepest Dive

The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories is a collection of adventures for players new to Runequest and its world of Glorantha. I wrote for this book. I wrote two adventures (which got squished into one big adventure) and a small environment for new players to get a foothold in Glorantha.

Also, this is the first writing I ever did for Chaosium. After being a fan and a customer for most of my life (ever since 1981), I had never done any official writing for the company until now. And it was for a game I hardly ever played. But there’s a story in all that. Here it is.

My first RPG was Call of Cthulhu. The second was Stormbringer. The third was King Arthur: Pendragon. (I sometimes get the second and third mixed up.) For some reason, I never got Runequest. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I had Stormbringer and that was fantasy enough for me. But years went by and I maintained with my holy trinity with a smattering of Traveller and Champions from time to time along with a reluctant dose of The Other Game (as Ken St. Andre calls it). And on rare occasions, I’d play Runequest, but often, without its accompanying world, Glorantha. It was just standard fantasy using the BRP (Basic Roleplaying System).

In the early ’90’s, I started working with AEG and Chaosium would come down to the Los Angeles conventions. I’d hang out with whoever was there and I met Greg Stafford for the first time. (I also got to meet Sandy Peterson but it wasn’t until I moved to Phoenix that I got to meet Ken St. Andre.) I was star-struck. He was pitching the new Glorantha RPG, HeroQuest, and I picked up a copy. I liked what he was saying about it—all mythology and story and very little mechanics—and I was eager to try it out. Unfortunately, I never did. It stayed on my shelf. I read the books, got a sense of the rich and dense world, and it showed me the true potential of world building. And the dangers of it.

You see, Glorantha is a world unlike any other in fantasy literature. Yeah, I’m gonna include Middle Earth in that list. Greg (and others) had been writing about Glorantha since the ’60’s and the sheer bulk of world knowledge included in these books is massive. Now, I could say that and you’d say, “Oh yeah? Well, Middle Earth has a whole bunch of lore!” So, I’m gonna have to show you.

See this? This is my Red Notebook. It contains everything ever written about my favorite Gloranthan subject: the Red Moon Goddess. Just one subject. And this…

… is how thick my notebook is. Almost 1,000 pages. One. Subject.

Now, that may seem enticing to some but damn intimidating to others. Folks who like to take deep dives (you know who you are), you could spend a lifetime studying Glorantha. I’m serious. There’s history and mythology and speculation and epistemology and…

… yeah. I said “epistemology.” No joke. There’s a whole ‘nuther book I’ve got just talking about “what is real and how do we know it” for Glorantha. And that one is only two hundred pages (give or take). Hey, Forgotten Realms fans! You got a two hundred page Forgotten Realms book talking only about the nature of reality? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Like I said, if you like the deep dive, Glorantha is for you. But if you’re a more casual player and you don’t want to spend a summer studying the various myth cycles of the Orlanth pantheon (which you can do), all of this can seem very intimidating. Well, I’ve got some good news.

A Shallow End

My buddy Jared Sorensen likes to say, “Glorantha is a swimming pool with no steps, no ladders and only a deep end and a high dive.” Well, the fine folks at Chaosium have seen fit to provide both a ladder and a shallow end for new players. And that, my friends, is The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories.

When Jason Durall asked me to write for this book, I got excited. I love Glorantha—even if I am a tourist by most Gloranthan standards—and I really love showing it to other people. The rich tapestry of cultures and stories is something I can talk about forever. But how do you introduce new players to something this… epic?

I’ll tell you what you do. You provide a single, small village in the middle of everything. A village just big enough to be growing and just small enough to need protecting. And that’s where your players come in. I created a center of operations for your players, a place of divergent cultures and peoples who are all unified by the fact that they need each other to survive. Glorantha is a dangerous place and they need dangerous people to protect it. The village was founded by veterans of the many wars over a place called “Dragon Pass” and they came from all over the world: Esrolia, Lunar Tarsh, Sartar, you name it, and they’re all united in a common cause: keep the damn wars out of our village.

As a GM, your players don’t need to know anything outside their own character sheets. The village is small enough that you can populate it with memorable characters (I gave you a head start) and make the village charming enough that your players will fall in love with it.

And once they fall in love with it, you’ve got ’em. Because we all know how to get players to care about a fantasy world: give them one thing they care about and put it in danger.

I built my village with that in mind. Every choice I made was to help you make your players fall in love with it so you can throw a new threat at it every week.

And they don’t need to know anything about Glorantha. You can show them new things every game session, slowly revealing the world one juicy bit at a time.

Oh, I also wrote this other adventure… and yeah, it’s got the same thing going on. You can use both of them together, in fact.

Dip in Your Big Toe

So, if you want to see what all the fuss is about, you can now finally try out Glorantha without worrying about all that nasty stuff called “canon.” The book is filled with other adventures with the same goal: introducing new players to a world that’s been growing for over half a century. But rather than throw thousands of pages of lore and history and… epistemology… at your players, you can give them a starting adventure that takes one or two nights to run.

Get a copy of the Runequest: Glorantha PDF and The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories and run a Glorantha game for your players. Try it out.

And when you’re ready, I’ll let you peek in my Red Notebook.

 

 

The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories includes:

  • The Pegasus Plateau is a desperate race to the top of a mountain to claim a priceless reward.
  • The Grey Crane concerns an ancient legacy, stolen from its rightful owner. (That’s me!!!)
  • The Rattling Wind is a deadly tale of ghosts and unearthly revenge.
  • Crimson Petals describes a curse afflicting a beleaguered town.
  • Gloomwillow’s Hollow details the Woods of the Dead, a realm ruled by ghouls and worse.
  • The Ruin on the Stream delves into an ancient ruin in search of long-lost secrets of dragon magic.
  • The Pairing Stones presents a tale of a wedding interrupted, lovers separated and reunited.

Additionally, The Locaem is a new tribe for use by gamemasters and players, and the lonely village of Renekot’s Hope (This is me, too!!!), perched between the Lunar Empire and its enemies in Sartar, provide refuge… or a springboard for adventure!

For a Few Tarts

A lot of talk about orks recently (the proper spelling is “ork”; “orc” is how the elves spell it with their silly hard c’s) and so here’s a story inspired by a game I ran not too long ago. It has orks. I hope you like it.

 

* * *

 

This is a story about the city and the rules of the street. Those who are wise will listen and learn. 

Circles always come around.

And never invoke the wrath of the Baking Lady.

 

1.

On the third day of the second moon, Javis Tal and his friends went slumming into the lower city, looking to cause trouble. He was part of the House of Tal, his family’s heritage well-known in the upper city, but not well-respected. His father was a villain and his mother even worse, and it was known in the upper city that any who crossed the House of Tal paid the price in blood and shame.

So, when Javis Tal, the youngest son of the House of Tal, went down into the Lower City to cause trouble, he made sure his insignia was on display for all to see. He hid behind it like a shield, like a magic ward protecting him from all worry and bother. He could cause mischief and mayhem and have no fears of repercussions. 

It was just before moonrise when he and his louts came across the ork selling bread, biscuits and tarts from a cart. The Lower City called her “the Baking Lady” and while few knew her real name, she was well known for her treats. Even those in the Upper City knew her and came down to the Lower City’s dismal streets for her sumptuous delicacies. 

All too often, when the Upper City slummers came down, they told her, “I thought you were an elf.” 

She wouldn’t object. Instead, she retrieved a piece of paper, signed by the governor of the Lower City himself, and stamped with his seal. The certificate declared that she was an elf, and since it was signed by the governor of the Lower City himself, it was legal and true. Then, after satisfying their curiosity, she sold them something sweet to eat.

And just before the moonrise on the third day of the second moon, Javis Tal and his ruffians found the Baking Lady and decided to start some trouble.

“So, what do you have?” Javis Tal asked, approaching with a drunk swagger, his hand grasping a tankard he took from one of the local pubs. “Something sweet for me, Baking Lady?”

The Baking Lady was no fool. She sensed what they were up to. “Go away,” she said. “Or you’ll find the trouble you’re looking for.” Very slowly, she reached down under her cart and found her iron club, the one with metal studs hammered into the sides. 

“We’re not here for any of that,” said Javis Tal while his compatriots giggled behind him. “We just want to buy some of your treats!”

“I know what you want,” the Baking Lady said, her thick ork fingers tightening around her club. “And if you don’t take off right now, you’ll get more than that.”

One of Tal’s boys picked up a lemon tart and began munching on it. He looked at Tal and smiled, his mouth full of pastry. “Hey, this is really good.”

The next thing in his mouth was the Baking Lady’s hammer, smashing his front row of teeth from his head.

The fight was quick. Javis Tal drew his sword with the training of an Upper City nobleman and put three cuts across the Baking Lady’s face before she could parry with her hammer. She backed up and swung blind, catching only the cool evening air. The rest of Tal’s crew followed suit, drawing swords and knives. 

Through the blood and pain, the Baking Lady saw the blades and knew she was outnumbered. She ran, ducking down the alleyway, using the maze of twists and turns to hide herself from the slumming noble brats. They ran after her, but as soon as they saw her vanish, their interest vanished as well. They returned to her cart, tipped it over, kicked it, took the coins and paper she had hidden in a drawer and snatched up the pastries they wanted, laughing as they walked back to the gates that led to the Upper City.

As soon as they were gone, the Baking Lady returned to her cart. She took one look and made a curse. She picked it up, set it back on its wheels and started sorting things out.

A few moments later, two more figures approached, this time from the inner part of the Lower City. One was as tall as tall gets and the other was only half his size. As their shadows approached, the moonlight finally shining upon them, we see who they are.

The tall one was as wide as a cow, his arms as big as a horse’s legs. His head was shaved and his eyes small and narrow. His large nose was pierced as were his pointed ears and he wore a black beard that looked as if it could terrify a razor. He wore a leather jerkin and a chain shirt over that. In fact, it was many chain shirts, all bound together by leather to fit his wide chest. On his back was an axe taller than his companion and a bow strapped across his chest. A quiver of black-winged arrows as well. Tall boots and leather pants with a wide leather belt around his waist. On his right arm was a handmade piece of scale mail and metal plates, all kept together by leather straps. His hands were ungloved for no glove could fit them and when he flexed his fingers gripping a weapon, they always ripped whatever fabric or leather they were clothed in.

His companion had the same eyes and same nose, but his lips were wider and seemingly always fixed in a smile. He wore a long leather cloak with a tipped hood that slipped easily over his large, pointed ears and jet black hair that was cut to just under his chin. Unlike his companion, he was clean shaven and wore no piercings. Under that cloak was a leather jerkin made just loose enough for quick movement. It also hid a great abundance of daggers. He had a thin sword on his belt and behind his back, hidden under the cloak, was a small hand crossbow. He also had a leather pouch thrown over his shoulder, and it were a great number of little things. 

As they approached the Baking Lady’s cart, she spied them and gave a sigh. She knew their names.

“Go away,” she said. “Don’t bother me.”

The big one’s eyes narrowed with concern. He rushed to help pick up the remaining pastries and handed them to her. He had to kneel to reach that far down and when she saw him kneeling, the anger in heart melted, just a little. Not much, but just a little.

“Thank you, Thrud,” she said.

Scav approached more slowly, but picked up bits of the cart, putting them under his arm. “Slummers again?” he asked.

She started sorting out the ruined pastries, sighing with each one. “You need to ask?”

Thrud finished with the pastries and stood still while his brother handed the Baking Lady pieces of her cart. “Little boys who think they’re so bad. Sounds like they need a spanking.”

The Baking Lady’s eyes turned to anger again. “Oh, no,” she said. “You won’t go looking for them. I forbid it.”

“The watch won’t do it,” Scav said, eyeing one of the pastries. The one with cherries baked inside. “The Uppers will just throw some coin and it will all be over.”

“I don’t want any trouble coming back,” she said. “You hurt them, their daddy comes down looking for revenge, and he’ll have a writ for just such a purpose!”

Scav made a tic tic tic with his tongue. “My brother and me, we’d never think of bringing trouble to you, miss. Not never. No, nay, never even.”

The Baking Lady knew better. She was well aware of what these two could do, the kind of fires they could stoke. She shook her head again. “I forbid it.”

Scav smiled and tossed a copper on her wrecked cart, picking up the cherry pastry. “You ain’t got no permission to give or take,” he said. “We only follow the law of the streets, and that says, ‘What you do, it always comes back to you.’”

She snatched the cherry pastry from Scav’s hand and put it back on the cart. “If you do anything to cause trouble and get the Upper City coming down here, Scav Littlefoot, I’ll make certain you never taste another of my pastries.”

“Oh now, why’d you have to go and say that?” he snarled.

“It’s true. You go to the Upper City for my revenge and I’ll never sell you another cherry pastry.”

“No,” Scav said. “Not that.” He lowered his eyes, his mouth frowning. “Why’d you have to go and call me ‘Littlefoot.’”

The Baking Lady sighed, throwing her hands up. “It’s clear I can’t stop you from doing whatever you’re going to do, but if it comes back here, to the street, know that you’ll never…”

“Have another of your pastries,” he finished for her.

She picked up his copper and put it back in his hand. “You don’t want that pastry anyway. It’s been on the cobblestones. Now go, and don’t you cause no trouble.”

Scav gave her a bow. “I apologize, oh great Baking Lady.” He recovered from his bow. “And I promise you, that we’ll cause no trouble that will come back to you.”

The Baking Lady shook her head. “Go on. I have to start baking for tomorrow morning.”

He made that triple tic sound with his tongue again, and Scav and Thrud walked away, slowly vanishing into the slowly growing mist on the Lower City’s streets. The Baking Lady went back to sorting out the mess when she saw a copper on the cart.

And the cherry pastry was gone.

2.

Dannel Drill stood guard at the gate that lead from the Upper City to the Lower City. He was a handsome young lad, no more than eighteen years old. His family lived in the Upper City but was poor—at least to the Upper’s standards. He stood watch at the gate because it was a job none of the richer family’s children would take and it paid well. At least, it paid well enough to keep his family out of poverty. He knew about “the incident” that dropped half the city over two hundred yards, right into the bay, filling the streets with water, but he had never seen it. On his first day, Dannel’s boss took him to the edge and he looked over it for the first time. He got dizzy.

Down below, far down below, he saw the Lower City. Its tall buildings and canals. From there, he could also smell it. Then, his boss showed him “the flying seats.” These were small carriages held up by rope and pulleys (his boss called them “windlasses”) that lowered or raised the carriage. He showed him how to operate the machinery to make the carriages go up and down. Then, he put Dannel into the carriage and lowered him down. 

And that’s where Dannel Drill stood guard. Right in front of the carriage that would bring you up to the Upper City. There were seven such carriages. His charge was to guard one of them.

He had only stood at this post for a week, and already, he knew most of what he needed to know. For example, he always had a copper in his pocket. This is why.

On the second day, a little old woman with a wheeled cart pulled by an old bull came by on the other side of the canal, selling baked goods. With the bridge in his way, he couldn’t quite make her out. She stopped and within moments, she was swamped with customers. He watched as they gave her coins and she gave them pastries and tarts. When the customers were gone, she picked up the reigns of the bull and moved on.

The next day, she came by again. Still too far away for him to see clearly, she stopped and the customers came out to buy her goods. When they were done, she picked up the reigns and went on her way.

On the third day, the same thing, but this time, she saw him looking. When she picked up the reigns, she crossed the bridge and approached him. As she got closer, he saw the little old woman was not a woman at all, but an ork. Her smile was full of teeth and he took a step back. “I’m the watch of the gate,” he said, as if it was some kind of ward or spell to keep her away.

But it didn’t keep her away. “I know,” she said. She reached back into her cart and opened a box. Inside was a vanilla tart.

“This is for you,” she said, and gave it to him.

Dannel looked at the tart in her hand and hesitated before taking it. 

“Go on,” she said. “It isn’t poison.”

Dannel thought to himself, Well, why not, and took the tart. He bit into it and the pastry was crisp and crunched between his teeth. And the vanilla cream was sweet and smooth and tasted so delicious on his tongue. 

“Oh my,” he said.

The ork laughed. “I’m glad you like it.” She raised a finger. “But only the first one is free! Bring a copper next time.”

She picked up the reigns and went away. 

And that is why Dannel always carried a copper in his pocket.

3. 

This late at night, there was little travel between the Upps and the Low. Sure, there were the slummers—those who put on old, dark cloaks and went from the Upper City to the Lower City looking for the kinds of sights and joys the Upps couldn’t provide—but very little trade when from the Lows to the Upps. When it did, it took the long, twisting road carved out of the stone wall, housed in large wheeled carts, carrying official travel papers.

And that’s what you needed to get from the Lows to the Upps. Travel papers. Going the other way didn’t require anything, but if you wanted the elevator to “go noble,” you needed proof you were a citizen of the Upper City.

So when two orks came walking up to Dannel Drill in the middle of the night, the big one looking like menace and the little one all smiles, he started shaking in his boots. He reached for the rope that sounded a bell high above, hoping the sound would wake the guards. But as soon as he did, the little one raised his hands.

“No, hold that,” Scav said. “No need for no alarms, watchman. We ain’t comin’ with no intent.”

Dannel gripped his spear with shaking hands. “Stay back,” he said. “Show your papers or walk away.”

Scav kept walking forward, his palms up, his smile wide on his face. “Ain’t got no papers and we ain’t lookin’ to go to Uppstown.”

“Then what do you want?” Dannel could feel his belly quivering. He’d never been confronted like this before. He’d seen orks, but always at a distance. They never came to the elevators. They never had a reason to. 

“Be needin’ to ask you a question, we do,” Scav said, taking another cautious step forward. Krav stayed behind, his body like an ominous shadow.

“Ask it from there,” Dannel said, dropping the point of his spear at Scav. 

Scav nodded and stopped, just a few feet short of the point of the spear. “Don’t mean you no harm, watchman. Just need some skim.”

“Skim?”

“Knowin’. Need to know what you know.” Scav turned his wrist and a large silver coin appeared between his fingers. “There’s a drop in it for ya if ya can say what I needs to know.”

Dannel looked at the coin. “I get seven silver coins a week for my watch,” he said.

Scav twisted his wrist again and three silver coins appeared in his fingers. “How’s that?” he asked. “Two more for three. Take your girl to a nice place. Put it in your old sock. A pretty, shiny thing for just sloppin’ yer gob. That’s all.”

Dannel raised his chin a little. He could feel sweat on his brow. “What is it you need to know?” he asked.

“A bunch of slummin’ nobs came down from the Upper tonight. Probably used this gate. You seen ‘em?”

Dannel thought about the question. He did see a small group of nobles come down. One of them was wearing the seal of the House of Tal.

“Maybe,” Dannel said, his voice cracking, just a little.

“That means yes,” Scav said. He tossed one of the silver coins at Dannel. The watchman let the coin fall at his feet, jangling against the cobblestones. “I gots another query for ya. They come back yet?”

The House of Tal was rich, powerful and vindictive. Dannel thought about that as he considered how to answer the question. This ork was clever. Something he didn’t know an ork could be. He was taught orks were little more than mindless brutes, driven by passion and bloodlust. But this one…

“I be waitin’,” the ork said, making the silver coins shine in the moonlight.

“What do you want from them?” Dannel asked.

Scav shrugged. “My mother told me ‘Never answer a question with a question.’”

Damn clever ork. Damn clever. That meant dangerous. “I’m not going to tell you any more,” Dannel said. “You want to harm them. I won’t be responsible for that.”

“We ain’t no cudgelliers,” Scav said. “And we ain’t no floggers, neither. We just want to know if they’ve gone back up the lift.”

Dannel shook his head. “I’m not telling you any more.”

Scav tossed the coin. It landed on Dannel’s boot this time.

“That means they’re still down here and you’re keepin’ your bladder tight because we’re glassin’ for ‘em.”

Damn this ork! Damn him! Dannel reached for the alarm rope again but Scav took a step back, the last coin still in his fingers.

“Last question, watchman, before we skedaddle.”

“No more questions!” Dannel said, his hand tight around the rope. “Go, or I call the guards!”

Scav let the last coin slip between his fingers. “No need,” he said. “We’re good and gone.” He backed up to Thrud and tapped the big ork’s chest. “Ain’t we, brother?”

Thrud said nothing, just kept his eyes on Dannel. His narrow, dark eyes.

4.

Scav and Thrud sat on the edge of a building, looking down at the canal and the streets on either side. The door they watched lead to a tavern and brothel with a little wooden sign above it with a rooster and a rose. They waited.

After an hour or so, five young men stumbled out of the building, holding each other up. One of them pushed the other into the canal. They laughed and fished their friend out, but not before jeering and teasing him. 

“That wretched water stinks like sewers!” the young man said. 

“Now you stink like sewers,” another laughed, pushing his friend again, but this time, he merely fell over and did not land in the canal. 

But Scav and Thrud were not looking at the man who stunk like sewers nor the man who pushed him. They were looking at the young nob with a crest on his cloak. 

5. 

Javin Tal and his friends stumbled up to Dannel Drill, laughing and falling over each other. Dannel Drill stood still, trying not to shiver. He was wondering how he could leave this position and find another. His father would yell at him about being a coward and his mother would sit quietly, saying nothing, but looking at him. His mother’s disapproval was worse.

Javin Tal reached into his jerkin and produced papers with a seal and a signature. “I am Javin Tal,” he said, then burst into laughter. Finally, he finished. “House of Tal, son of Verin, citizen of the Upper City.” He then degenerated into laughter again, his friends keeping him from falling over.

But not well enough. Javin fell right onto Dannel and the watchman could smell vomit and ale on the nobleman’s breath. 

“Javin Tal, you are authorized to use the lift. Welcome back to the Upper City.” Dannel pulled the rope and he heard the bell ring above. Ropes and pulleys moved and the carriage slowly descended from above.

One of Tal’s gallant few said, “Do you remember how that ork ran? We scared the shit right out of her, didn’t we?”

The nobs laughed and Dannel remembered the two orks who visited him earlier that night. “Be needin’ to ask you a question, we do,” the smaller ork said.

“She won’t be healing those scars you gave her face any time soon!” another of them said, budging Javin Tall with his shoulder.

 “I gots another query for ya. They come back yet?”

He remembered the smile on the smaller ork’s face and… the horrible eyes of the big one. 

The tallest one, the one with curly red hair, smacked Javin’s back. “We should go back and make her run again!”

Javin stumbled forward… and let his stomach loose on Dannel’s tabard. The stink of it reached Dannel’s nose and he almost retched himself.

The nob boys all laughed and Javin laughed, too. He pointed at the watchman, a wet, sick smile on his face. “Oh, so sorry!” he said. “Please send the bill to my father!” And he laughed more.

Dannel looked at his tabard. He used his glove to scrape some of the sick away. It slopped and splattered to the cobblestone.

“I should have told them everything,” he muttered to himself.

Javin Tal stopped laughing. “What did you say?”

Dannel looked up, his mind now realizing what he said. “N-nothing.”

“Should have told who everything?” Javin Tal stepped forward, right into Dannel’s chest. He looked down at the boy and Dannel shook his head. 

“I didn’t say anything, sir. I promise.”

Dannel heard the sound of steel and saw a knife in Javin Tal’s hand. “You said, ‘I should have told them everything.’ I heard it.” He gestured with the knife to his boys behind him. “They heard it, too.”

Dannel backed up until he felt the cliff against his spine. There was nowhere left to go.

“I… I…”

“Yes,” Javin said. “Speak up.”

“There were two orks,” Dannel stammered. “They were looking for you.”

“Looking for us, were they?” Javin said. “Did they say why they were looking for us?”

“N-no,” Dannel said. “They… I didn’t tell them anything. I promise.”

“You already promised me a lie once, boy,” Javin said. He made another gesture with his knife. “Search his pockets.”

Javin’s boys moved forward and Dannel tried to run. They caught him, holding him by his tabard. The tall one with red hair shoved his hands into Dannel’s pockets and pulled the two silver coins out.

“So,” Javin said. “You didn’t tell them anything. But you have two coins in your pockets.” Javin gave a wicked grin. “How does that work out?”

“I didn’t tell them anything,” Dannel said. “They asked me and bribed me, but I didn’t say an—”

That’s as far as Dannel got. He felt the knife enter his belly. Felt Dannel twist it. Then, he fell to the cobblestones, his eyes and mouth wide open.

The carriage finally reached the ground and the nob crew stumbled in, laughing and slapping each other’s backs. Dannel watched them rise up. They were pointing down at him. Another one opened his mouth and let the evening’s festivities fall at Dannel. His aim was wide. It splashed beside him.

6.

Scav and Thrud saw her at the very last moment. They were sitting in a tavern, Scav playing a hand of red queens while Thrud stood nearby, watching for cheaters. So far, he didn’t need to break any fingers.

The Baking Lady rushed in with her iron club, screaming Scav’s name. Everyone got out of her way. Scav turned and dodged at the very last moment, as I said above, as her club smashed the wooden table in two, sending cards and coins everywhere.

“Scav!” she shouted. “You little gunga!”

Now, gunga is a very bad word in the orkish language. I’m not going to tell you what it means. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s a very bad word, indeed.

The Baking Lady took another swing at his head and he ducked, just in time. Lucky for him, because she would have taken his head clean off. Everyone knows what happens when the Baking Lady hits you with her club. She may be the Baking Lady, but she’s still an ork, and she knows how to use that club.

Thrud grabbed the end of the club as she swung it a second time. She turned and faced him.

“And you!” she shouted. She tried pulling the club away from Thrud, but he was having none of that. 

“Give me back my club so I can smash your brother’s head down into his shoulders!”

Thrud shook his head, maintaining his grip on the end of her club.

“Fine!” she said. “I’ll kill him with my bare hands!”

She let go of the club and chased after Scav. The small ork was hiding behind a table. 

“Now, why are you so mad at me?” Scav said. “I didn’t do no harm to you.”

“They took my baking license!” she shouted, grabbing the table and throwing it over her head. All the way over her head. She was an ork, after all.

Scav backed up to the wall, raising his hands. “Baking license? I didn’t have anything to…”

“The order came from the House of Tal!” she shouted. She grabbed his collars and shoved Scav against the wall. “From the House of Tal, Scav! What did you do?”

“N-nothing!” he managed to say through his clenched throat. “I promise! We didn’t do anything!”

The Baking Lady looked into Scav’s eyes. Then, keeping her grip on his collar, she looked at Thrud. “Is he telling the truth?”

Thrud nodded, holding her club with both hands in a kind of reverent way that only orks would notice.

She looked back at Scav and growled, showing her teeth. Scav just smiled. “I promise.” Then, he whispered the Baking Lady’s orkish name.

“I promise,” he said again.

The Baking Lady’s growl subsided and she let Scav’s collar go. He slid down the wall to the floor. 

“I have the red hate, Scav,” she said. And Scav knew what she meant. “I want my baking license back.”

Scav nodded. “I’ll fix it.”

“I’ll fix you!” she shouted and charged at him again, teeth and jaws open. 

Scav raised his hands again, averting his eyes. “I’ll fix it! We’ll fix it!”

“Go do that,” she said. “I hate going to the Upper City. Don’t make me do it, Scav. Because I will.”

“Throd and I will get your baking license back.”

She stormed over to Throd and held out her hand. Throd gave her the club. She gave him a small nod and he returned it. Then, she stormed out of the tavern.

7.

Scav knew the Baking Lady wasn’t really trying to hit him, because if she did, she would have hit him. The Baking Lady wasn’t always the Baking Lady. She learned how to use that club in places Scav never wanted to go. But she had to make a fuss because that’s one of the rules of the street: never invoke the wrath of the Baking Lady.

She also said, “I have the red hate.” I should tell you what that means.

For orks, everything is a circle. What you do comes back to you. Action means consent. If you rob someone, that’s telling Fate that it’s okay for someone to rob you. If you strike someone, that’s telling Fate that it’s okay for someone to strike you. Only do unto others what you’re willing to happen to you. That’s what orks mean when they talk about “Fate keeps the circles.” Everything you do comes back to you.

Now, if someone hurts you first, that means its okay to hurt them back. After all, if they’re okay with knocking out a few of your teeth, they should be okay with you doing the same to them. That’s why you have to be careful with how you treat an ork. Every action is a signal of consent.

And that’s why orkish jewelry is always in circles. It’s a reminder. 

When the Baking Lady said, “I have the red hate,” it meant, “I’m willing to hurt someone.” Now, the elves and humans and others in the tavern may not know what that meant, but Scav did. It meant he had to fix this problem before the Baking Lady used that club of hers and smashed someone’s head in. The Baking Lady didn’t want to smash Javin Tal’s head in because she didn’t want that circle coming back to her.

Granted, Javin Tal started all this. He smashed up her cart and he cut up her face, which means he had given permission for the Baking Lady to do the same, but you have to know something about the Baking Lady to understand why she didn’t want Scav and Thrud to close that circle.

See, the Baking Lady doesn’t like violence. She doesn’t like revenge. She’ll do it if she has to, but she won’t make it carry out. If she can move on without finishing the circle, that’s just fine by her. 

So, as far as she was concerned, the incident with the nob brats was over. But when the House of Tal pulled its strings to get her baking license revoked…

The red hate.

Walking down the Lower City streets, Scav thought out loud.

“She said red hate, big brother.”

Throd nodded.

“We can’t have the Baking Lady walk around with red hate.”

Throd shook his head.

“Got to fix this.”

Throd nodded.

That’s when Scav stopped. He realized they had been walking toward the gate to the Upper City and someone was whistling. Scav looked up and saw the watchman by the gate. He was deliberately not looking at them and whistling.

Scav stepped closer. “And what you got to whistle about?” Scav shouted at the guard.

The guard stopped whistling and his face turned red. He made a slight gesture with his hand. Scav repeated the gesture back at him and the guard made it again.

Scav and Thrud walked over. The guard looked up at Thrud and down at him and the guard said to Scav, “Are you the two orks who talked to Dannel?”

Thrud looked down at Scav and he shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Good,” the guard said. And he rang the bell.

8.

A few days later, Javin Tal and his friends came down the lift to the Lowers, laughing and half-drunk already. When the lift landed, they poked at the guard and went on their way into the Lower City.

They managed to hit two taverns before they came by the street where they met the Baker Lady. And there she was, in front of her little cart, counting the money she made that day.

“Hey!” Javin shouted. “It’s that pastry ork!”

The Baking Lady looked up. She dropped the coins and paper and ran into the alleyway behind her cart. Javin and his crew followed, chasing after her.

They followed her down the alleyway, then followed her to the left. The narrow streets only allowed one of them at a time, so Javin was in front, chasing as quickly as his drunken legs could. When she made another turn, he stumbled, fell and hit his chin on the cobblestones. He cursed, pushed himself back up and…

… he paused. Looked behind him.

There was no one. None of his friends. 

That’s when Thrud stepped out from the corner he just turned. He tossed a tall noble with red curly hair onto the cobblestones. A wide grin on his face that looked a lot like his brother’s.

“Well, well, well,” said a voice that made Javin spin. “All alone, ain’t ya?”

Javin saw a small ork with a brown cloak, a sword at his side. Out of instict, Javin said, “How does an ork get a license to carry a sword?”

Scav rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Coin, my nobber. Coin.” 

Both Scav and Thrud moved closer. Javin drew his sword. But he was drunk and his stance was poor. He could barely stand. Without his friends to help him, he stumbled, grasped the wall for balance.

“You’re about to learn a very valuable lesson about the streets, my nobber gunga,” Scav said. “That everything’s a circle. And what you do… comes back to you.”

Javin thrusted his blade at Scav but the thrust was wild. Scav dodged it easily. From behind, Thrud grabbed Javin around the arms and lifted him off his feet. He squeezed and Javin dropped his sword. Javin almost screamed.

Scav walked up to the noble, but his head only reached Javin’s chest what with Thrud holding him up like that.

“Now, you should know,” Scav said, “that this isn’t personal. This is just what happens when you come down to the street and kick around the Baking Lady.”

Scav took Javin’s hand in his hands and extended one of Javin’s fingers.

“Nobody invokes the wrath of the Baking Lady,” he said and squeezed his grip around Javin’s finger.

“Wait!” Javin screamed. “Wait! Stop! I’ll do whatever you want! I’ll do anything!”

“Ain’t this you’re dueling hand, Javin Tal of House Tal?” He kept his grip tight on Javin’s finger, but didn’t move it.

“Yes!” Javin screamed.

“And if you weren’t able to use it, you wouldn’t be able to duel, would you?”

“Yes!” Javin screamed again. His eyes were shut and watering. 

“So, you’d best make peace with the Baking Lady, shouldn’t you?”

“Yes!” Javin’s voice was breaking now and Scav was sure the nob would pass out from fear at any time, so he let go of Javin’s finger.

“This is what you’re going to do,” Scav said, reaching into his big bag of little things. He found a rolled up parchment and unrolled it. The scroll had a seal. The governor’s seal. “Look here,” Scav said.

Javin opened his eyes and saw the parchment. “H-how did you get that?”

Scav rubbed his fingers together again. “I’m surprised at you, Javin Tal of House Tal. Don’t you know how the city works?” He also procured a quil and a small jar of ink. He opened the jar, dipped the quil and put it in Javin’s hand.

“This is a rebuke of your claims against the Baking Lady,” he said. “And an apology.”

“Wh-hut?”

“You heard me. Now sign it.”

Javin blinked and something changed in his face. Pride started replacing fear. “No. I won’t.”

Scav shrugged. “All right. No more dueling for you.” He put down the parchment and the quil and grabbed Javin’s middle finger.

“NO!” Javin screamed. “I’ll sign it! I’ll sign it!”

“Good!” Scav said, his face all alight in joy. He gave Javin the quil and he put his signature on the parchment in a quick, unsteady hand.

“Thank you, Javin Tal of House Tal,” Scav said. He blew on the ink until it was dry, then he rolled up the parchment. “You can let him go.”

Thrud dropped the nob to his feet and Javin stumbled and fell on his backside. Scav kicked his sword to Thrud and the big ork broke it across his knee, tossing the pieces into the darkness of the alleyway. The two orks then started walking away.

“What… that’s it?” Javin said.

Scav stopped and turned. “That’s it. You’re finished, Javin Tal of House Tal.”

“For apologizing to an ork?” He laughed. Laughed so hard he coughed. “Nobody in the Upper City cares about that! You idiot! You’ve gained nothing!”

Scav and Throd just kept walking. Javin kept laughing.

9.

Eventually, he and his nob friends made it back to the lifts. They were bloodied and bruised, but at least their fingers weren’t broken. That’s what Javin was thinking. He was also thinking about how he was going to burn the entire Lower City down looking for that damn pastry ork and her two friends. He’d make examples of them, all right. He would.

When they reached the lift, Javin showed his papers. “Javin Tal of…”

“Javin Tal of House Tal,” the guard said. “You are under arrest.”

Javin shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

More guards appeared. Without his sword, Javin could do nothing but watch as they surrounded him and his friends with spears and crossbows.

“Under arrest? For what?”

The guard showed him a rolled up parchment with a seal. The governor’s seal. Through his drunk haze, he looked at it… and saw his signature at the bottom.

“Under arrest for kicking an ork? Are you joking? Do you know who I am? Do you know who my father is?”

“That is not what this charge reads,” the guard said. 

Javin looked again, squinting. And when he saw the words, he started to cry.

10.

You never see orks in the Upper City. You just don’t. They need permits to travel up the lifts and no governor is going to give an ork a permit to travel in the Upper City.

So when Dannel Drill awoke in his hospital bed as the nurse changed his bandages, he did not expect to see the Baking Lady standing a the stoop of his bed. He blinked and smiled, and she vanished.

He looked up at the nurse. “Is there someone at the foot of my bed?”

The nurse looked. “No. It’s the opium. For the pain. It’s making you see things.”

She finished his dressing, then turned and had a small box in her hand. “But someone sent you this.”

Dannel Drill took the box and opened it. Inside were three vanilla tarts.

Cthulhu and the Wreck of the Sloop John B

(This is from a spelling I performed on my 50th birthday and part of a roleplaying game called “Secret: A Little Game about Magic,” which will be the last RPG I ever publish.)

Thursday November 15, 2018

Spent all day listening to different versions of the Sloop John B. All day.

The Kingston Trio version invokes the original language of Nassau. “Well, I feel so broke up, I want to go home.” Every song a sailor sings is about going home.

When I first heard Brian Wilson’s poppy, happy, melancholy chimes and perfect chorus, I thought the music undermined the lyrics. It wants me to feel happy, but sad. But then I learned more about Wilson, and it made sense.

His depression. Hearing voices. Seeing visions. And I hear the song differently now. Just a little knowledge, and my whole impression changes.

When one of the Beach Boys, Al Jardine, brought the song to Wilson, he originally rejected it. “I don’t like folk music.” But Jardine changed the chord structure to better fit a Beach Boys song and re-presented it. He left the studio, and the next morning, Wilson phoned him to come back in. He had re-arranged and recorded the song in less than 24 hours. That kind of obsession only comes coupled with a crippling depression that makes a man never want to leave his home. When the Barenaked Ladies sing “Lyin’ in bed, just like Brian Wilson did,” that’s the Brian Wilson they’re singing about.

I listen now and I hear the boppy music and the melancholy lyrics and it feels like the song was his own Voice of Depression thrown at a mixing board.

When I was a boy, my depression was a ghost hovering over my shoulder, constantly reminding me of ways to kill myself.

“You could do it now. Just jump off the bridge.”

“You could do it now. Just swerve the car into traffic.”

“You could do it now. Eat all the pills in the medicine cabinet.”

And the only time I felt good was in the shower. Just standing under hot water pelting my naked body. That made me feel good. I felt warm and safe. I’d take fifteen minute showers. Thirty minute showers. Just standing there in the hot water. My thoughts would turn to anything other than suicide. In fact, hurting myself was never an option in that place. My best ideas come from standing in the shower, just thinking.

Making music must have been the same way for Wilson. Imagine him, sitting behind the mixing board, focused on the harmonies and chord changes, his mind completely devoted to his work. Thoughts of razors and pills and traffic long gone, kept away behind the locked studio door.

When he says, “Why don’t you let me go home?” I know exactly which voice he’s talking to.

Twenty-four hours. And he made a song that people still sing. Almost as if he had no choice in the matter. As if it was protecting him from something.

I’m only thirteen years old when I find Call of Cthulhu in the Spencer’s Gifts. Walking in with ten dollars from mowing lawns, I planned on spending that money at the arcade next door, but I stopped here first. The people at Spencer’s Gifts have no idea what it is and have marked it down to ten bucks. They don’t even charge me tax for it. “Just take it, kid.”

I have no idea what this thing is. But I know the names “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu.” But it’s a game, too? Like Monopoly or Clue.

I open the box. The sweet smell of freshly printed paper rushes up to greet me. I have my first roleplaying game. Within 24 hours, I have friends over to try it.

I don’t need thirty minute showers anymore. I have something else. I can tell stories.

More than thirty years later, I’m running Pendragon for my friends. The game begins with Uther becoming the King of England and ends with Arthur being taken away to Avalon. It’s a long haul. Sometimes as long as two years of real time.

Six months into the game, my friend Rob writes this:

 

 

And I remember why I run games. I love movies. Nobody can say that about movies. I love books. Nobody can say that about books. Nobody can say that about plays or comics or television shows.

RPGs are a unique medium that has unique effects on the audience. Performs a unique kind of magic. Alchemy. The art of telling the story that transforms the audience and the artist.

Greg Stafford wrote about this in Runequest. In his world of Glorantha, you can accompany a shaman into the Hero Realm and undergo an adventure, reliving a hero’s experience in his eyes, walking in his footsteps. Returning to the world, you are transformed by the experience. Whether he knew it or not—and I like to think he did—Greg made a roleplaying game about the roleplaying game experience: the Game Master helps you enter the world of heroes and gods, where you walk in a hero’s footsteps, seeing through her eyes, and then return to the world, transformed by the experience. By taking you on that journey, the shaman, or the GM, also cannot help but be transformed.

A true magic trick indeed.

And now, all of that rushes up into my head, all at once. A full throttle firehose blast of information. Sailing on the Sloop John B with Cthulhu off the starboard side and Greg in his captain’s hat just smiles and says, “We’ve got this.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “It’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna get you home.”

Unreview: Knives Out

Unreview Rules

  • I have to like it
  • I have to pay for it
  • I do my best to use E-Prime

NO SPOILERS

I grew up with Sherlock Holmes. He taught me the value of reason and logic (even if he did mix up “induction” and “deduction”). The quirky detective with all his faults and foibles served as one of my first heroes. Later, I learned of Hercule Poirot through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Even later, Dashiell Hammett introduced me to the Continental Op and Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler gave me Philip Marlowe. But my favorite—my all time favorite—has got to be Columbo and his “anti-mysteries.” If you aren’t familiar, the structure of a Columbo movie (they were all TV movies) showed you the crime right up front, making the criminal the main character, and the suspense was wondering how Columbo would solve it. And that’s only half the fun. The other half is watching a seemingly bumbling, clumsy, rumpled police detective wander around from scene to scene. I say “seemingly” because behind that cigar and under that coat was a brilliant mind with a trickster’s smile.

So yeah, I got some game in this market. I sat down in the theater with my small bag of popcorn and watched the seats slowly fill up. For the first time in many months (I go to the movies a lot) someone sat in nearly every seat. I couldn’t remember a theater being that full.

Waiting for the movie to start, I’m thinking about the director, Rian Johnson. I love his work. He has this skill for taking the tropes of a genre and twisting them up. You’ve got expectations, he’ll dash them while maintaining true to the tropes themselves. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and he always pulls it off magnificently.

And this film takes the classic, old fashioned murder mystery (what Neil Simon calls “murder poo!” in his play Murder by Death) and plays that juggling act with the kind of expertise and clever plotting that he used in Brick.

(And if you haven’t seen Brick, you should. Like, right now.)

The audience around me visibly reacted to the movie. They laughed, they gasped, they inched to the edge of their seats and I was right there with them. And as I sat there in the dark, enamored with what I watched, I thought to myself, “This is what going to the movies is all about.” Getting a visceral reaction from the audience.

Benoit Blanc, as played by Daniel Craig, has quickly jumped up in my estimation of private detectives. Taking a little of Holmes, Poirot and Columbo, Johnson created a character I honestly hope to see again on the silver screen. I know sequels are traps, but I honestly love this character. And he’s not the only one. The entire cast chews on the scenery and has a blast doing it. And like Richard Levinson and William Link (the two gentlemen who created Columbo), he’s created a brand new way to tell a murder mystery. I won’t say anything else other than it amused me to no end.

A friend of mine recently said, “Rian Johnson is dead to me for what he did” to The Last Jedi. And while I felt that was probably his weakest film (I still liked it), I feel sorry for him because he won’t see this movie. I’m going back this weekend to see it again and I’d pay for his ticket.

My D&D Character: Barbarian

My name? I do not have a name. I am called The Heinig.

My people were a peaceful tribe living in the mountains. We abhorred violence, but we understood its necessity. That is why I was chosen to carry the wrath of the tribe. When I was old enough, I went with the other children of my tribe to stand before the shaman. I remember it now. A dark night, we sat around the fire and drank what she gave us. We went before the Goddess, and we were tested. When it was done, the Goddess chose me. And I became the wrath of my people. I was given this axe. I would be their protector. So my people would not need to commit the Gravest Sin, I carried this axe.

What is the Gravest Sin? It is murder. Why do you not know this? Why do your people and your gods not teach you this? Is there any sin greater than that?

This is why I am The Heinig. I carry this axe so no other in my tribe needs to.

But I failed them. A horde of humans ran through my village with steel and fire, killing them all. They left me alive. They thought it was a game. They were all dead and their protector is still alive. And that is how they left me: with my axe and my tribe bleeding in the snow.

When I am very quiet, at night, I can see them. Trapped in this world, unable to pass into the next, for their spirits are unavenged. They sing to me. They do not sing me songs of shame, for they are too kind for that. They sing me songs of strength, so that I may carry on. To let me know that I do not carry this shame alone. They are still with me. And when I am weak, they carry me. When I weep, they laugh. When I doubt, they remind me of what I am.

That is why I shaved my head and my beard and that is why I travel the world. Not for riches. Not for magic. All these things are a means to an end.

I hunt those who murdered my people for sport. And when I find them, I will kill them. Because I am The Heinig. The wrath of my people.

And they will be avenged.

Gencon 7th Sea Larp

 

At Gencon this year, I ran a 7th Sea LARP for about 40 people. Afterward, I got a lot of positive feedback and people asking me exactly how it worked, what game design process I went through and a bunch of other questions. Since I’ve gotten so many questions, here are some answers.

Now, just to let you know, this is a behind the curtain essay. If you’re the kind of person who watches a magic trick and doesn’t want to know how it works, I highly suggest not reading after a certain point. I’ll let you know when that is. But first, just a quick summary of how the rules worked for the folks who played the game in Indianapolis. Also, if you’re gonna be at Strategicon in Los Angeles around the end of August, this is the larp I’ll be running, so you may also want to avoid the spoilers listed below. I’ll be making some changes, and the game literally changes at the players’ whims, so don’t expect too much “advantage” from reading ahead. Besides, this is a live action roleplaying game. Who the @#$% tries to win a roleplaying game?

(Psst: vampire larpers.)

Oh, that’s right. Never mind. Forgot I asked.

How the Game Works

I set the game in the city of Five Sails. Now, Five Sails is an independent city-state. It belongs to no Nation. “The City where everyone is a king, but nobody wears a crown.” (I stole that line, by the way.) Now, the city is divided into Districts, each “governed” by one of the Nations. There’s a Vodacce district, a Castille district, a Commonwealth district, etc. Every year, the governors of each district vote on a mayor.

Well, the mayor is gone. Presumed dead. Presumed murdered. And one of the governors is responsible. May not have done it themselves, but one of them has the mayor’s blood on their hands.

The players each represent a faction of Heroes working for one of the governors. In the Indianapolis game, I let the players choose which governor they wanted to work for. (This is the first thing I’m changing for the Los Angeles version: players will get divided randomly by drawing numbers out of a hat.)

First Economy: Traits

The game had a number of economies going on (things the players could use during the game.) The first was Traits.

Each player had an index card sized character sheet. The card had only the five 7th Sea Traits: Brawn, Finesse, Wits, Resolve, and Panache. Heroes had scores of 2-5 in their Traits. I also gave some return players (folks who had played in previous 7th Sea larps and brought the same character) and folks who dressed in costume a bonus ability they could use during the game. I had a half-Sidhe pirate, a Montaigne Porté mage and an Eisen mercenary who all got bonus stuff on their sheets.

Next, I introduced the players to the Clues on the table behind me. Each Clue was in a manilla envelope with a cryptic description. Each envelope also had a number of Trait points the players needed to spend to open the envelope. Brawn: 10, for example. That meant the players needed to get enough players to agree to spend 10 points of Brawn to open that envelope and read the Clue. Some Clues were cheap (Finesse: 5) and some Clues were expensive (All Traits: 5). The value of the Clue corresponded to the number of Traits the players had to spend.

Each Clue read similar to this one:

The Governor of ___________________ District owed the Mayor 10,000 Guilders.

I told the players they could fill in whichever governor they wanted. It could be the Vodacce governor, the Castillian governor, etc. And they didn’t have to fill it in right away. They could keep it, show it to the players representing another governor’s interests, and bargain for a trade of some kind.

The clues were deliberately vague for a purpose: at the end of the game, everyone would vote on which governor was responsible for killing the Governor. More on that in a bit.

Second Economy: Guilders and Improvements

The players also had a number of Guilders (coins) they could use as they saw fit. They could use the Guilders to buy Clues, for example. But each district also had a number of Improvements it wanted built in its part of the city. Montaigne wanted a new opera house, Eisen wanted a new garrison, etc. Each Improvement cost 10 Guilders. Once a player–and it had to be a single player–gave over the 10 Guilders for the Improvement, they got the card. Completing an Improvement was worth one Trait refresh. That is, a player could turn in an Improvement card and completely refresh one Trait (Brawn, Finesse, etc.).

Third Economy: Hero Points

Players also had Hero Points they could use like Style Points in my Houses of the Blooded larp. In short, I offer you a Hero  Point and ask you a question: “Isn’t it true that I beat you in a duel two years ago?” You can either say, “Yes” or “No” to this question. If you say, “Yes,” you get the Hero Point. If you say, “No,” I can offer your more Hero Points or just move on to another player, offering them the Hero Point.

Players can also ask me questions about the city, the mayor, etc., by offering me (the Host) Hero Points. If I say, “Yes,” I add it to a list of truths about the city at the front of the room. If I say, “No,” I can’t be bribed. It’s just one and done with me.

Hero Points give the players the opportunity to create stories and backgrounds between themselves, create rivalries, allies and enemies. You cannot force someone to take a Hero Point. It’s 100% consensual. (Because RPGs are more like sex than most people realize.)

The Artifacts

Finally, there’s the Artifacts. Hidden in the game were four Syrneth Artifacts: relics from a civilization that walked Théah before humans. If a group found an Artifact, they could use it to establish whether a governor was a Hero or a Villain. Of course, this significantly influenced the question of which governor was responsible for killing the mayor.

The Pirates and My Ringer

Oh, and in addition to the city factions, I also had a pirate faction. They were in town and offering their services to help solve the murder. I made up the pirate faction as soon as I saw so many people dressed appropriately. They turned out to be a loud, rowdy group who sang shanties and did their best to cause trouble.

I had Jessica along as a ringer. She was playing the half-Sidhe pirate. Jessica is perfect for this job. She’s helpful, knowledgable and when you give her the ability to do anything, she uses it responsibly. So, I gave her the power to do anything. She is a Sidhe, after all.

How It Played

The players made their character sheets out–a total of two minutes–and listened to the description I gave above, the whole spiel took about ten minutes. That included questions. After that, we were ready to play.

Each group started haltingly, testing the waters. Except the Eisen bunch. They went straight to work.

Two duelists–one a Montaigne and the other a pirate–seemed to start a kind of rivalry. They came to me and asked me how the system would handle a duel. I told them, “Offer each other Hero Points. Whoever accepts gets to say who won the duel.” They apparently decided to spend the game collecting as many Hero Points as possible to offer the other at the end of the game to win the duel. That meant they had to say “Yes” to a lot of things to get those Hero Points. And, at the end of the game, they offered each other a mass of Hero Points and agreed on a winner. But more on that later.

The flow of the game was groups of players trying to work together to get as many people they could together to “find clues.” One by one, they opened them up and decided on how to fill the blanks.

They exchanged Hero Points establishing relationships with each other, creating rivalries and friendships. And they showed the Clues to each other as they opened them, asking rival factions how much they wanted to pay to keep the Clue from pointing at their governor.

And I… did… nothing.

Honestly. I’ve heard so many people tell me how busy a GM is at a larp, and during my larps, I largely walk around and listen or sit down and watch. That’s because with Hero Points (Style Points in Houses of the Blooded and Blood in my little vampire larp), the players make the drama. I don’t need to do anything. I just toss the pitch and let the players hit the ball, and let them field it.

Because every player has Hero Points, they’re all empowered to make decisions. They can see a player they want to engage and can offer them Hero Points to engage them. I give them the power to do it. But more importantly, I give them the permission to do it. Hero Points are abstract, they aren’t just GM encouragement. They’re a mechanic. And because of that, it’s okay for you to spend them any way you want, so long as you can convince someone else to say, “Yes.”

In a matter of an hour, three of the four Artifacts were found. The players decided which governors were Heroes and which were Villains. The fourth was in Jessica’s possession, and I knew she’d have it show up when it was appropriate. One group who found one of the Artifacts asked if they could use it on the captain of the pirate faction. I told them, “You have to get his permission.” So, they went to him, offered him Hero Points, and he agreed to become a Villain.

And speaking of Villains…

These were mine. My friends I met in Italy. They were the representatives of the Vodacce district. I asked if they would play Villains for me, and they jumped at the chance.

I gave them Villain Points instead of Hero Points. And I said, “Tell the players that Villain Points act exactly like Hero Points, but when you spend them, something awful might happen. Be sure to tell John when you spend them.”

They asked me, “What do Villain Points do?”

I told them. And they smiled. But that’s for later.

I also told them, “Your job isn’t to thwart the players. It’s to get thwarted by the players. You are obstacles to overcome. Let them do it.” They agreed.

So, I gave them Villain Points, a bunch of coins to bargain with, and they were off.

(And that’s Jessica grinning in the background.)

How It Ended

The players managed to discover all the Clues and Artifacts and get all the Improvements made. (That tells me I made things too easy for them. I’ll change that for Los Angeles.) Jessica gave out a few faerie gifts and it looked like the Eisen were in a clear lead for “most productive faction.”

The two women (Pirate and Montaigne) who wanted to perform a duel did so. I set it up like the pro wrestling larp my friend Dan and I run: I had them sit in two chairs just out of reach of each other and asked them to narrate the duel to the other players. They offered each other Hero Points to determine the winner and the Pirate came out on top. They narrated the duel with a lot of pantomime and drama and because the other players didn’t know who was going to win, they were cheering and booing the whole way.

After considering all the Clues, each faction voted on who was responsible for the mayor’s death: the Montaigne governor. And then, when it was all over, I had everyone vote on which player would take his place. Then, we all cheered, I closed the game, and we took pictures.

Spoilers: Behind the Scenes

Like I said, a lot of folks asked me to break down how I pulled all this off. It must have seemed like an incredible feat of game design engineering. At least, that’s what I’m told. People asked me how I kept all the players so entertained. “I’ve never been to a larp where I wasn’t bored at least part of the time.”

Well, here’s the big secret, folks. And, like I said, if you don’t want to know any spoilers or see how the trick is done, turn away now. Just stop reading. And now, with no further ado…

 

 

 

 

 

… I made it all up.

Seriously. I just made it all up.

I sat down on the morning of the larp and wrote down 30 Clues. Took me about forty minutes.

Then, I thought about what kind of cool thing the players could do with the Artifacts. I took a shower–the source of all good ideas–and thought about it. I decided, “The Artifacts let the players decide which governors are Heroes and Villains.” That worked.

How many coins did I give each faction? Eh, I made it up. I had a bag of coins and I decided some factions should get more than others. I knew the Montaigne faction was the smallest, so I gave them the most coins. Seemed to make thematic sense. (Also, the Montaigne faction came damn close to winning the election. They were good players.)

And finally, while I was running the game (which was me pretty much walking around and watching), I rewarded players with Hero Points and Kewl Powerz. Like giving some folks a free Trait Refresh. Or giving others bonus Brawn.

But the most important thing I did was trust the players. I gave them the ability to be GMs themselves (with Hero Points) and let them go. And when one of them got a little over-eager with the idea, I reminded them, “This is just a game. There’s no winning or losing. It’s about telling a story.

Now, you may argue that “winning” is figuring out who murdered the mayor. Yeah, sure. I guess. But really, everyone was going to vote on that anyway.

You may say that getting the Artifacts was winning. Yeah, sure. I guess. But it wasn’t zero sum winning. You didn’t win because someone else lost. You wanted to say something true about the governor, and you did. Great! You set a goal and you got it. But that really doesn’t count as “winning,” does it? At least, not at another player’s expense.

The players set their own agendas and had the tools to accomplish them…as long as they got consent from other players. And that’s really how the game runs. That’s the big secret:

 

Give players the power to be the GM and trust they’ll tell stories with it.

 

If you tell players that’s what your game is about–like I did–they’ll generally do it. Didn’t Mr. Miyagi teach us all that? Let me paraphrase: “No such thing as bad player. Only bad game. Game say, player do.” The game says, “Here’s narration rights. Be responsible.” Do that, and players will, generally, do what they’re told.

A bunch of larp people were at the game and they commented on how it seemed there was no system. No formal dueling mechanic, no mechanic for sorcery, no mechanic for mass combat. “Yeah,” I said. “We don’t need it.”

And that’s the truth. In a cooperative storytelling game (like RPGs and larps), what mechanics do you really need? I’ll tell you what you need: a mechanic that encourages people to cooperate and tell stories.

Everything else… it’s just nonsense.

 

 

Oh, and what do Villain Points do?

My Vodacce players know. Ask them. I’m sure they’ll quote you a fair price.

 

My Superman

 

(With acknowledgement to Mike Curry without whom this story wouldn’t exist.)

A bank robbery. Six suspects, all with incredible, inhuman speed and strength. Their eyes glowing an eerie cobalt blue. Fortunately for them, they decided to rob a Metropolis bank and not a Gotham bank. If they had chosen the latter, they’d all have broken bones and possibly brain tissue trauma. Fortunately for them, they chose Metropolis.

About one minute and fifteen seconds after the robbery starts, he shows up. Like a blue and red blur, he moves through the bank, grabbing guns and bending them around the robbers’ bodies. He does this so quickly, cameras can’t catch it.

When he gets to the last robber, the man has a hostage: a man in his sixties who looks like he may fall apart at any moment. The last robber–Reggie Spenser–is a black man with a crew cut. He moves like a professional soldier because he was one. Reggie makes a couple of threats, then finds himself in the same position as his comrades: his gun melted and bent around his body, immobilizing him. Reggie looks up and sees the clear blue eyes and black hair. But what he doesn’t see is malice or hate.

“@#$% you!” he shouts at the Man of Steel. But instead of more violence, the soft baritone asks him a question.

“What led you here?”

Reggie looks confused. “Whuddyou mean?”

“I mean, what led you to the decision to rob a bank? You’re strong. You’re smart. What brought you here, this day, to aim lethal weapons at people and threaten their lives?”

That’s when Reggie realizes that the Last Son of Krypton isn’t just super strong and super fast, but there’s something in his voice that…it isn’t mesmerization. It isn’t anything forceful. It’s just…

Empathy.

Reggie looks into those eyes and hears the voice and realizes, He actually cares. 

“We were Marines. They did something to us. Put us in a box. This blue smoke filled it up and we passed out. And when we woke up, this is what we were. They said we were a mistake and tried to kill us. We’ve been off the grid ever since.”

Reggie hears sirens. And the baritone voice again.

“What’s your name?”

Reggie tells him.

“Reggie, you’re going to face the criminal justice system. More than likely, you’re going to jail. I can’t help you with that. Tell your story to your lawyer. Trust him. I know the woman who runs the Public Defender’s Office. They’re overworked, but they’re good people.”

The sirens get closer and he continues.

“You’re probably going to jail.” He puts his large hand on Reggie’s shoulder. “But when you get out, I’ll be there. And we’ll both make sure you get a fresh start.”

 

Three years later…

 

Reggie Spenser walks out of Metropolis Prison. He’s carrying only what he carried in with him. Standing outside the prison is a tall man in a blue suit with a red cape.

“Hey man,” Reggie says. “Thanks for the visits. I don’t know if I could have made it without ’em.”

The man in the blue suit says, “You’re strong. You would have made it.”

Reggie smiles and says, “Those cookies really come from your mom?”

“They sure did.”

“Tell your mom she makes great cookies.”

The Man of Steel says, “I found the men who did this to you. They’re in custody. The District Attorney says he needs your testimony to finish off his case.”

Reggie thinks for a moment. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll do that.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” Superman says. “You’ve got a hard road ahead of you. There are people who want you to fail.”

“@#$% them,” Reggie says.

“Not the language I’d use, but I appreciate the sentiment. Come on. I’ll fly you over.”

 

Meanwhile, across the river, Gotham Central Hospital just admitted four bank robbers with cranial fractures. Two of them might make it.

 

* * *

 

Mike Curry and I were talking.I had just watched a documentary on Mr. Rogers and was commenting on how decent a human being he was, all the way through. That got Mike thinking about how to introduce Superman to a group of roleplayers. He said “I have Batman, but I haven’t gotten Superman figured out.”

Then, he said, “What if Superman was like Mr. Rogers?”

And thus, this story.

Thanks, Mike.

 

Unreview: WWE 2018 Survivor Series

 

Vince McMahon has committed many sins in his life (And by “sin,” I mean the original meaning of the word: “falling short.”), but this is perhaps the one sin for which a wrestling promoter can never be forgiven: he has lost control of his audience.

Everything you see in a wrestling show leads to a single purpose: to control the audience. Make them cheer, make them boo, make them laugh, make them cry. Wrestlers do this in their matches by structuring the contest in such a way that you feel what they want you to feel. The villain cheats, you shout angry epithets at the ring. The hero makes a comeback, you jump to your feet and cheer. And a wrestling show is constructed in the very same way. Just like plays, movies, books, and TV shows, promoters design their wrestling shows to manipulate the emotions of the audience.

Last night on WWE’s 2018 edition of Survivor Series, after taking a brutal and seemingly endless beating which left Ronda Rousey with a beet red chest, a broken lip, a bleeding ear, criss-cross marks on her arms, and visible open wounds, the crowd boo’d her out of the building. The problem was, the beating she took was designed to make the crowd boo her opponent…who walked out of the arena with cheers and chants of “Thank you!” It was the exact opposite result McMahon and his writers wanted.

Watching Rousey walk the ramp to the back choked me up right to the edge of tears. Yes, wrestling matches are choreographed stunt shows, but you can’t fake gravity and you can’t ignore pain. The beating Rousey went through was real. You can watch it. Just do a Google search and look at what her body looked like.

See those marks on her arm? Those aren’t make up. Those are legit marks from getting hit over and over and over again with a shinai. The woman was in pain. The attack—performed by Ric Flair’s daughter, Charlotte—was one of the cruelest and vicious things I’ve seen in years. And as a wrestling fan, I lived through the Horseman beatings in GCW. I saw the Piper-Valentine strap match. I’ve seen Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the Butcher. And I watched the Mick Foley-Undertaker Hell in a Cell match live, holding my breath the whole time. This was uncomfortable to watch because Charlotte did not pull any punches. It felt real.

And yet, when it was over, Charlotte was the one who was cheered and Rousey’s hometown crowd simply turned on her. The exact opposite effect of what the creators desired.

How could this happen?

Because Vince McMahon has lost control of his audience. And tonight was just a symptom of a much deeper problem: he thinks his fanbase is stupid.

Let me explain using an example from last night. In wrestling, there’s a long tradition of something called “the promoter’s son effect.” That is, whoever happens to be in charge of the wrestling company pushes his (or sometimes her) son above all the other talent. This creates resentment in the locker room as they watch someone without as much talent, charisma, or wrestling skill gets pushed above and beyond everyone else. It was true of the Von Erich boys in World Class, it was true of Greg Gagne in the AWA, it was true of Erik Watts in WCW…the list simply goes on and on.

Last night’s PPV was to pit the two WWE shows against each other: Raw vs Smackdown. And in the end, Raw won 6-out-of-6 matches, giving them a clean sweep. Why was the show written this way? To give Shane McMahon—Vince’s son—a reason to “turn heel.” That is, to become a villain.

That’s right. Vince threw an entire show’s roster under the bus so his son could have an excuse to become a villain. He made everyone on that show look weak and/or foolish for his son. Perhaps the ultimate example of the promoter’s son effect.

And he does this thinking the fanbase won’t notice. But there’s a problem here. Wrestling fans are a lot more media savvy than they were back in the ’70’s and ’80’s. More savvy than they were in the ’90’s, when wrestling had its Modern Golden Age. We’ve been through TV and media that have demanded a lot from us. Shows like LostAmerican Horror StoryGame of ThronesThe Sopranos, and Breaking Bad actually forced its audience to smarten up and watch with a critical eye. Websites devoted to finding easter eggs and foreshadowing in shows have made their audiences keener than they’ve ever been before.

Problem is, the WWE thinks they’re still selling their product to rubes and marks.

Used to be, when a villain cheated to win a match, the crowd would get angry at the villain. They left the sports auditorium thinking, “That dirty Ole Anderson is gonna get it when Dusty gets his hands on him!”

But a modern audience doesn’t think that way anymore. When they’re unhappy with a match’s results, they get mad at the promoter.

Case in point: two years ago was the Year of Daniel Bryan. Bryan is a wrestler with incredible skills, one of the best performers in the world. And at the time, WWE treated him like a joke because he didn’t look like Hulk Hogan, John Cena or Roman Reigns. He was a comedy act. The fans hated this and voiced their displeasure whenever they could. They’d chant his name during his matches. They’d chant his name during other peoples’ matches. And when he lost, they’d boo, even though he was a heel. The fans simply did not care how McMahon treated Bryan, they cheered. Because, at the time, the crowd felt that if they cheered loud enough, Vince would change his mind.

Well, their plan worked. Sort of. Daniel Bryan did become the WWE champion…but his reign would be short-lived. He would be played off as a fluke and lose the title to someone of McMahon’s choosing and the fans would be happy to watch it happen. Circumstances would strip Daniel Bryan of the title early: a lifetime of hard matches convinced the WWE medical staff that wrestling was no longer safe. And for two years, Bryan was a non-wrestling talent in the WWE, serving as a manager.

But Bryan was, like last night’s event, a symptom of that same problem. So were wrestlers such as Sasha Banks, Bayley, Asuka, and Finn Balor. All great talents that the fans were ready to get behind…but Vince remained unconvinced. So, he buried them in the middle of the roster while his hand-picked heroes and villains thrived, despite what the audience wanted.

The crowd believed it could change Vince’s mind. After all, it worked with Daniel Bryan. So, they continued to cheer for their favorites, regardless of what Vince was doing with them. This includes a woman named Becky Lynch.

The fans have decided they love Becky Lynch. And, as a lifetime wrestling fan, I can see why. She’s got talent. She looks fantastic in the ring. She has charisma. And she can put on a damn good show. Everyone loves Becky Lynch…

…so Vince made her a villain.

And the crowd didn’t care. They kept cheering her, no matter what the WWE tried to do.

Last night, Becky was supposed to be on the show. It was supposed to be Becky Lynch vs Ronda Rousey. Unfortunately, one of Vince’s hand picked golden tickets—the Rock’s cousin, Nia Jax—hit Becky in the face, breaking her nose and giving her a concussion. (The latest in a long string of injuries dealt by the severely undertrained Nia Jax.) That meant the WWE needed to replace Becky Lynch. They replaced her with Charlotte Flair.

As soon as the match started, the crowd started chanting Becky’s name. They didn’t want this match. They wanted Becky Lynch. Fortunately, the two women put on one of the best WWE matches I’ve seen in years. And I mean any match, put on by men or women. I was on the edge of my seat.

And then, in the middle of it, Charlotte just decided, “Screw this, I’m disqualifying myself.” In wrestling parlance, it’s called a “F—ck finish.” And when you do one of these, you have to make sure the crowd is with you, or they’ll turn on the match.

And that’s exactly what happened last night. The crowd was so pissed at the “non ending” of the match, they started booing the hero and cheering the villain.

At long last, the crowd has figured out a troubling truth: if they can’t yell at Vince, they’ll yell at the talent.

Last night’s audience turned into an angry mob, and they were going to throw their feces and fire at someone. Vince wasn’t there, so they decided to throw it at Ronda Rousey. The woman who just went through a real beating, had open wounds on her scalp, on her ear, on her arms and legs. And as she walked up the stage, and she heard those people throwing their derision at her, she started to cry.

That’s when I knew I just couldn’t watch the WWE anymore. I just can’t.

I can’t watch Vince McMahon take talent like Asuka, Bayley, Daniel Bryan, Finn Balor, and many, many others and piss their careers down the drain because he doesn’t know how to “get them over” with the crowd.

Sorry, Vince. Your failure of imagination is not my problem. And I’m tired of rewarding it.