Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Story is the Campaign, Not the PCs - Or, is D&D a Soap Opera?

Today, a charming and interesting PC, who had taken on an unlikely leadership role in my weekly game and had literally just reached 2nd level after a heroic sequence of events, died meaninglessly in a random encounter with earwigmen. 

My game is rich in senseless PC death. By my count we have lost 8 or 9 PCs so far, in something over 20 sessions. Some of these had reached level 3 or 4. None of them really died in grand circumstances - and a high proportion were killed by wandering monsters. 

The deaths have been deflating. At times, old school D&D can seem nihilistic. Just as things seem to be going in one direction, a roll of the dice (I do almost all the dice rolling in the open) sends everything careering sideways - and sometimes seemingly backwards. 

I am usually relatively sanguine about this, because deflation is a valid emotion too, and I remain convinced that the realistic possibility of PC death raises the stakes and makes the game feel more real. But I am also human, and I was gutted when that earwigman rolled maximum damage and did away with poor Pupli. 

At times like this, it helps to remind oneself that, while it is an OSR mantra that the 'story' emerges through play and not by design, it is probably more accurate to say that story operates at a different level of abstraction to modern RPGs. Ever since the 'silver age' of RPGs, the idea has been that the story is about what happens to the individual PCs. In an old school game, by contrast, the story is really the campaign. Individual PCs come and go, but they are not the focus - the narrative is about the events that take place (in which the PCs, of course, play a role). Pupli the Etruscan 'Maru' of Nortia died today, but his player slipped into the role of one of the disciples that he had gathered, and events will take their course next week in the aftermath of his death.

This, in my view, ultimately instantiates a much richer understanding of story than that which is advocated in the mainstream. A PC dies and ceases to be of interest directly, but we become interested in his death and what it signifies, and this adds fresh layers. What will Pupli's followers do now that he has gone? Will his comrades try to avenge him? Suddenly there is more going on in the campaign than there was before, and this is what matters, because - to reiterate - the campaign is the story, and the story is the campaign.

Another way of putting this is that D&D is a bit like a soap opera, but with orcs. Individual characters arrive, and we might like them and grow to care about them, but they'll all go away again in the end (even  Ken Barlow). The story is not about any particular one of them, and it survives their deaths, comas, accidents, etc. It's Neighbours that we watch, not "The Adventures of Felicity Scully". You would be hard pressed to argue that Neighbours or Coronation Street are not in themselves stories - Neverending Stories perhaps - merely because they have no clearly delineated beginnings, middles or ends, or permanent characters. Indeed, the fact that no character is bigger than the capital-S Story is a large part of the appeal. 

Thursday, 3 June 2021

[Reviews] Dark Streets & Darker Secrets, Hypertellurians, Pariah, Vagabonds of Dyfed

A cluster of skerries on the very outskirts of the OSRchipelago are glimpsed on the horizon. In low wind and bright sunshine, we guide our sloop, HMS Review, to the leeward and scan the shores with our telescopes for signs of life.

Dark Streets & Darker Secrets

Written in a month for NaGaDeMon (National Game Design Month), this is a stylish, nicely illustrated mash-up of Unknown Armies, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk 2020, and its ilk - you could probably also run World of Darkness style games with it, too. It is redolent of the mood and 'edgy' qualities which were de rigueur in the 1990s, though with self-consciously old school elements (random 'characteristics' of the Dark World, some of which are better than others; random adventure generators; disclaimers encouraging the DM to avoid the need to balance encounters and make things artificially fair). For something written in a month, it is an impressive feat. 


A 'science fantasy adventure role playing game', Hypertellurians gets the Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/John Carter/Barbarella/Original Series Trek tone exactly right in its art and mood. I forgive it its forgisms ("be a fan of the players and their characters"; "fail forward", "say yes", "don't hide the adventure"); I almost can't forgive the extensive deployment of the term "raypunk". I can't imagine ever playing a game in the kind of universe depicted here, just because I have other cups of tea available, but if I did, this is where I would turn. It has a fresh and exciting feel, and I applaud it.


This describes itself as 'old school roleplaying when the world was young' - that's right, it is a stone age RPG, though one that is very carefully thought-out and (it seems to me at least) well-informed. Not so much 1 Million Years BC, or Stig of the Dump - more Lavondyss, the middle story of Fifth Head of Cerberus, Helliconia Spring, those novels about neanderthals whose name I forget. The PCs are exiles from their tribe(s); it has spirit realms and rituals; extensive rules for psychobotanicals; a random wilderness generation method; images of waif-like girls covered in face-paint and tattoos. I very much like it and would run it: this is high praise, because as a general rule I don't run anything written by anybody else.

Vagabonds of Dyfed

This is one of (many) attempts to use PbtA rules to run games in a sword & sorcery setting, with OSR sensibilities. That I think this may be a quixotic effort (which is why I have never dabbled in Dungeon World) doesn't stop me admiring those who try. This one is perhaps most notable for being very "inside baseball" and folded-in; the first three or four pages, before we even get to rules or introductions, is an extensive apologia/justification for old school play which I can imagine being useful for somebody steeped in story games but totally baffling for somebody new to RPGs. Have we more or less abandoned the notion that anybody coming to our products nowadays will be a neophyte? This seems realistic, but I can't help but feel it presents us as being akin to one of those beleaguered religious communities who no longer evangelise but gradually grow old together and die. 

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Inspirational Art

What is a lazy bank holiday evening for, if not for putting up blog posts about obscure projects long-ago teased about and still only glimpsed on distant horizons when seen at all?

After five years of gestation, the form which Behind Gently Smiling Jaws will take is now firm in my mind. Here are some pictures to tease further:

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Of Krynn and Urth: Shared vs Singular Settings

Comments on recent entries suggest that there is a need to clear something up about fantasy settings.

Look at the following spectrum:

Urth <------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------>Krynn

Any fantasy setting can be placed somewhere on that spectrum. Across one dimension it serves, of course, as a proxy for quality. Urth is a powerfully rich, unique and dense setting and the books Gene Wolfe set there are wonderful. Krynn is derivative and the Dragonlance books are not very good. 

But that is not the dimension that interests me. What I'd like to emphasise instead is that Urth is a very singular setting - unique, indeed, to the brain of Gene Wolfe and probably unreplicable (except in weak, uninteresting pastiche) by anybody else. Krynn, on the other hand, is a shared one. Yes, I suppose Maragaret Weis and Tracy Hickman came up with it. But it is founded on conventions that anybody who has read a fantasy book will recognise and which are, to a large extent, common property to fantasy fans. (And this is indeed why so many people have contributed to the Dragonlance series' over the decades without really changing the books' mood or character appreciably; Volume 51 of Kender, Gully Dwarves and Trolls is basically the same thing as Dragons of Autumn Twilight - different varieties of cheddar cheese.)

When it comes to novels, I want everything clustered to the left hand side of that spectrum. This is probably also true of those RPG settings which I know I will never play.

But when it comes to actual gaming, it is important that settings lean towards the right. Not all the way, by any means. But at least part of the way there. This is because RPGs and novels are fundamentally different things. Reading a novel is all about becoming involved in the singularity of the author's vision - or, at best, co-creating that vision in one's own mind and imagination. There, distinctiveness is what really matters, and singular settings are therefore best.

Playing an RPG, though, is about running a successful game. It's not chess, football or boxing, but ultimately it is still about communal fun. Sitting down at the table, the players are not simply engaging in exploring the DM's beautiful and unique creative product, but actively contributing. This requires them to have a certain footing on the same ground - to be deploying certain assets of shared property. The setting they are inhabiting does not have to be as derivative and bland as Krynn, but it has to take at least certain assumptions for granted in order for there to be long-term success. 

Tekumel is perhaps the classic example of an edge case. It is a unique setting, for sure, but it perhaps has enough of the shared furniture of D&D - the quest for gold and XP, the basic system, the core conceit of exploration/dungeoneering/questing - to make it gameable. With Yoon-Suin I suppose I was aiming for something slightly to the right of that. 

Another reason for preferring game settings to be on the shared end of the spectrum (rather than the singular) is simply that what happens in a game tends to do extreme violence - literal and figurative - to the setting, and the DM's tolerance for that happening if his game is set in an environment like Gene Wolfe's Urth is probably much lower than if it is set in a place like Krynn. In this respect, a setting like Krynn, the Forgotten Realms, and so on is a bit like an ABBA song - even if Piers Brosnan is singing a cover version in a crappy movie, it still kind of works on its own terms because those melodies are almost part of our cultural heritage at this point. But nobody wants to hear him singing Captain Beefheart. 

[Review] Troika!

Most RPG settings, adventures, modules and indeed systems are destined to go unplayed. This, we all of us accept. But despite the unrealised ambition of these forlorn also-rans, they can nonetheless entertain and inspire enough to make them worth the purchase. Troika! sits firmly within this camp.

I have my misgivings. Is Troika! beautifully written? Yes. Does it exude creative brilliance from every pore? Certainly. Is it the work of an auteur of considerable imaginative power? Without question. Does it stand out as utterly singular in a landscape of bland and samey grimdark S&S OSR bleakness? Undoubtedly. 

But can I see myself playing it? I cannot - except perhaps as a palate-cleansing one-shot. Its strangeness and weird beauty is admirable. But I do not find it really lovable. It strays too far into the realm of whimsy, fancy, eccentricity - the point at which imaginative endeavours become untethered from consequence and begin to feel as though they are just diverting amusements. The concept of playing as an Ardent Giant of Corda, a Befouler of Ponds, a Gremlin Catcher or a Member of Miss Kinsey's Dining Club makes me smile, and the marriage of art and text in all cases is sublime. But can I envisage playing a long-running, open-ended campaign as one of these characters? Would getting your hands on a 'pocket barometer' or 'tea set' feel as good as plundering thousands of gold coins from a dungeon after many tough fights and dangerous endeavours? The idea of a hotel called The Blancmange & Thistle, with a silent mandrill concierge and an old lady who feeds it red bonbons, is a beautiful vignette. But would events taking place within that environment feel as though they really mattered - rather than simply being riffs on a charming idea? 

Troika! bills itself as providing a science fantasy universe in the spirit of The Dying Earth, Viriconium and The Book of the New Sun. But I wonder if that may be the source of my problem with it. I love all of those books - but I do not think that any of them is in particular a good inspiration for an RPG campaign. They are too distinctive, too dense with allegory and metaphor, too much tied to the creative intelligence of their authors. Let loose at a gaming table with a group of five nerds, some beer and pretzels, and the intensity, beauty and intrigue of such a setting would quickly evaporate. There needs to be something more solid, prosaic and quotidian to hang regular play on - something with a feeling of familiarity in which the fantasy can be rooted. What reading Troika! in fact reminds me most of is the experience of reading the Jerry Cornelius series as a twentysomething and thinking: yes, this is all very well, but do I feel the viscerality that I feel when reading Tolkien, Gemmell, Goodkind, Martin? Does this seem like it is a book about real people, or just fancy concepts?

And yet there is a lot about Troika! to love. The system - a well thought-through advancement of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules - is just the right amount of lite. The art is perfectly judged: eerie, discomforting, surreal. There is more substance to it than what I would think of as its closest competitor and also closest cousin, Into the Odd (another work which I appreciate without really wanting to ever run); at times it almost hints at achieving that union of dream and reality at which surreal art is always aimed. The implied setting is compelling. And the writing - so preciously rare a quality - is, heavens, actually good

I will never play Troika! But I am glad that it exists. 

4 out of 5 becs des corbins

[Troika!, published by Melsonian Arts Council and written by Daniel Sell, cost me US$18 in PDF - about £12.50 in real money - and has 116 pages.]

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

[Reviews] Lyonesse RPG, The Gaean Reach RPG, and D&D

[The Lyonesse RPG costs £59.99 in print+PDF and is 512 pages long. The Gaean Reach RPG  costs £6.95 in PDF and is 108 pages. Dungeons & Dragons is available in various formats, and from various publishers.]

Emulating Vance has been a central element of RPGs since their inception; arguably, he is the most important single literary influence on D&D, and the sheer range and popularity of his novels has inspired RPG designers for decades. Two recent examples are the Lyonesse RPG and The Gaean Reach RPG, which between them neatly demonstrate the pitfalls confronting designers hoping to imitate or emulate Vance's fiction. 

The Gaean Reach is the biggest sinner of the two. I must confess that I am not in general a fan of Robin D Laws' game design, and I particularly disliked his Dying Earth RPG (which also, of course, tries to imitate Vance). So my review is clearly coloured by my own personal preference. But with that said, I think there is something fundamentally misguided about the premise of the game, which it seems to me seeks only to achieve a thin, superficial pastiche of a small category of Vance's fiction in RPG form. Rather than drawing from what I would take to be the real joy of reading the Gaean Reach books - which is the way Vance glories in the sheer variety of the worlds he creates, and the variety of stories they allow him to tell (mystery, thriller, romance, space opera, revenge travelogue, picaresque, action) - the game instead, in true storygameish fashion, tightly focuses on providing the tools to just tell and re-tell a narrow and rather boring sub-Demon Princes tale of vengeance. We don't get the means to create a great interstellar sandbox to explore, with Vancian themes (more below). Instead we just get a way to randomly generate a bad guy ('Quandos Vorn') who the players are supposed to go out and revenge themselves upon. It's all very, to use that RonEdwardsism, "coherent". 

In other words, we what the game provides is ultimately simply a way to artificially create a replica of the plot of a Demon Princes novel with our friends, together with the kind of overblown, pseudo-Vancian 'witty' prose which so marred The Dying Earth RPG. Reading it is like eating fish and chips in an 'English' themed pub in Tokyo: not as good as real fish and chips, and you don't really eat fish and chips in a pub to begin with.

If the problem with The Gaean Reach is its laser-like focus on pastiching The Star King, the flaw in the Lyonesse RPG is that it sits at the opposite end of the spectrum: it simply faithfully presents the setting of Lyonesse as a typical, bog-standard fantasy world - the kind of gazetteer that was ten a penny in the fantasy gaming scene during the 80s and 90s. Shorn of Vance's prose, ideas, and themes (again, more on that below), Lyonesse just isn't particularly interesting or different as fantasy settings go - and a rather detailed overview of it (combined with some rules) is all the book really provides. Are you interested in the five crimes that are punishable by death in each of the Ten Kingdoms? Do you really need to know that Blaloc is a 'sleepy, inconsequential kingdom'? Does it matter to you that 'richly coloured fabrics' are readily available in Port Posedel? Perhaps so, but I have to confess that reading the novels seems a more enjoyable and valuable activity - not to mention a better way of getting to know Lyonesse - and D&D a perfectly suitable system in which to run a game set there afterwards. If all I'm getting is a rather ordinary fantasy continent in which to set a campaign, £59.99 seems a steep price to pay. The book looks great, no doubt about it. But does it feel like Lyonesse? Not really.

But that brings me to my main point, which is that, for all people might endeavour to design RPGs set in Vancian worlds and emulate Vancian fiction, in actual practice it is 'old school' D&D which - at the table - captures the tenor, tone, and philosophy of Vance's work most perfectly. Whether by accident or design, what really happens when people sit down to play OD&D is that Vance's themes organically emerge. The sense of slightly arch and ironic detachment, oddly reminiscent of pre-modern fiction, eschewing interior monologue, or indeed the interior world of the characters, except obliquely. The sudden shifts in tone, from comedy to tragedy, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The matter-of-factness of violence and danger, which is always and everywhere underdramatised and all the more dramatic for it. The slight sense of gleeful schadenfreude that accompanies unfortunate events, particularly where the proud are brought low. The methodological individualism of Vance's worlds, where it is actions that matter and everyone is ultimately a master of their own fate. The fact that everybody, from the lowest shopkeeper to the mightiest villain, has motives, desires and interests of their own, rigorously pursued. Emulating Vance is about emulating those qualities of his fiction - the themes which he returns to in every novel, working and reworking endlessly into new and more interesting shapes - and D&D in my experience somehow manages it again and again at the table when the spirit of the original rules are adhered to. It's not, in the end, about aping Vance's plots and language, as The Gaean Reach RPG does, or simply using his furniture, as in The Lyonesse RPG. It's about a way of approaching the fiction that unfolds in play - and it's D&D that does that best. 

Monday, 24 May 2021

More on Charming Anachronism, and the Archipelago Setting

One of my major long-term goals in life is to license Jack Vance's Gaean Reach concept and write a game for it. This is the closest I will ever get to living in a world in which interstellar travel is not only possible but common and reasonably priced - yet you have to physically go to a travel agent to buy a ticket (and read magazines in the waiting room while you wait). 

I have written about this fairly recently, but the more that the internet permeates our lives, the more nostalgic I feel for the time before it existed. It is strange, but also perhaps strangely fitting, that science fiction - a genre about the future - should be the vehicle for that nostalgia. Rebooted and retrofitted to deliver not what could be, but what could have been once, and now never will. The future that could have been ours, before we got addicted to smartphones and decided 'likes' and retweets were more important than interstellar travel.

The beauty of the Gaean Reach is also that it is also what I think of as an 'Archipelago Setting'. It is not one region, one land, or one world, but really a setting comprising potentially almost infinite worlds, each capable of possessing great depth and detail (and also great superfluousness and superficiality). The point of an archipelago setting is that it can encompass more or less anything the creator comes up with - but it will have certain thematic undercurrents which link all of its mini-settings together. The Gaean Reach, for instance, possesses mind-boggling scope (the Alastor novels are set in a cluster of 30,000 stars with a population of five trillion, and that's just one of many books and series set in the Reach), but at the same time its many worlds and locations all feel as though they were created and conceived by one man - which, of course, they were.

Other archipelago settings which spring to mind are, of course, Iain M. Banks' 'Culture' books (which I have to confess never really gelled with me), Christopher Priest's The Islanders, CJ Cherryh's Alliance-Union books, the WH40K universe, and indeed many space operas. Interestingly, of course, D&D (certainly in its 2nd edition heyday) is in a sense a very diffuse and decentralised archipelago setting, in which everybody's Special Snowflake world is really just another sphere in the Prime Material Plane; in a more metaphysical sense yet, it is an archipelago setting whose islands exist within the heads of every DM who has ever though up his or her own world or region - with sometimes many such islands residing in one head all at once. 

Thursday, 20 May 2021

[Review] The Gardens of Ynn

I continue my voyage across the OSRchipelago (geddit?) with The Gardens of Ynn, by Emmy Allen. It cost me US$5 in PDF, and has 79 pages.

The Good

  • The mood. There is, to my eye, a slightly (but only slightly) bleak and melancholic twinge to the Gardens of Ynn, but is very much in sweet spot for me, to the right of 'whimsical' but to the left of 'high fantasy'. It reads like it may have been written by, say, John Bellairs, Arthur Machen, Robert Holdstock or even Miyazaki Hayao; I want to say that it actually reminds me most of Little, Big, but I should more accurately put it that it reminds me of what I thought Little, Big would be like before I had the misfortune of reading it.
  • The setting is briefly but beautifully described in three paragraphs, and then without further ado, we begin. From that point on, it's usefulness all the way down. This brevity is surely to be encouraged. What we have in our hands is, in fact, that rarest of treasures - a largely implied setting. 
  • And here there is much to admire, and imitate. Glass butlers and golem gardeners and walking topiaries and sidhe. Flocks of peahawks and candle-golems and bonsai turtles and unicorns. Hothouses, shooting ranges, ice rinks and mushroom beds. Wineries, fire pits, steam-pipes and towers. Kennels and hedge mazes and gazebos and mask galleries. These are a few of my favourite things.... Just list the words: I'm sold.
  • It may be the only genuinely workable example of procedural adventure creation in the OSR canon?  More importantly, it is a procedural adventure creation system that could undoubtedly be used generically - by simply swapping out the entries in the various tables for others - to create, for example, Mythago Woods, Viriconiums, Angband-style dungeons, dream worlds, Yellow City Old Towns, or any other environment which is subject to continual change and where fixed mapping is not desired. It is no small feat to think up such a system, especially one that is so easy and intuitive to use. 
  • The random tables of search results, treasures, sidhe alterations and the like are a delight - just about eccentric enough to, again, hit my sweet spot on the nose.
  • The art is perfectly judged in tone, and perfectly deployed. 

The Bad

  • Diagrams are not always necessary, but I think they would have been useful in elucidating the procedural generation process, which I found initially to be slightly opaque and awkwardly worded. Similarly, a imaginary, played-out 'example session' would have been helpful in - I am compelled to use the word - 'grokking' how the system of procedural generation works. 
  • A smallish quibble, but the one table which I think falls flat is the one of 'Rumours in Ynn', which often yields results I would imagine most sensible PCs ignoring. 'Rose-Maidens have been using blood to fertilize their plants. They're getting more vicious in their quest for more donors.' OK, I suppose we'll avoid Rose-Maidens, then. I want more 'hooky' rumours than this. 

The Ugly

  • A small thing (no pun intended), but the typeface used throughout is rather tiny and scrunched, and makes things hard to read in places - particularly for an old fart like me who likes to print out the physical book and read it properly.


I must say, I am extremely impressed by The Gardens of Ynn. It is without doubt in the highest echelon of woks that the OSR has produced. Indeed, I find myself feeling jealous. More than that, I find myself wanting to run it - which is a rare, rare feeling indeed.

5 out of 5 becs des corbins

Monday, 17 May 2021

[Review] The Red Prophet Rises

I decided to throw some love to the DIY D&D community yesterday by doing something which I almost never do: buying modules. I'm going to review them on the blog. The first is Red Prophet Rises, by The Merciless Merchants. It cost me US$5, and it's 41 pages long.

The Good

  • There is an endearing semi-professional quality to the product. The layout, art, and typeface approximate what one might have expected of the industry standard in the early 90s, except slightly worse. For me this is a feature, not a bug (although see my comments regarding art below); I like the feeling one gets, paging through it, that this is the work of hobbyists who have day jobs. It was, in other words, made by people who embedded within the community of people who would buy and play this stuff. 
  • It is - high praise indeed - efficiently written without being leaden and terse, and usable. No, it does not read like it was written by Marcel Proust. ("A massive rough-hewn bust of a bald man with a lengthy braided ponytail glowers down from the 50 foot high rock outcropping that divides the canyon.") But it does what it needs to. 
  • Stuff going on. There is always something to interact with, in every keyed area - at least as far as I can tell. This should simply be standard practice by now; perhaps it is - I'm out of the loop.
  • The writer has a very nice way of giving locations an air of dynamism - as though the PCs are not merely happening upon vignettes held in stasis, but are stumbling upon events that have their own trajectories. ("A horrifically scarred, hyena-headed humanoid squats on a flat rock gulping desultorily from a mug of ale. It tilts its head and inspects visitors...[He] hates Velan and attempts to convince the party to kill him.") Great - not just a potential enemy in a room, but a thing with apparent volition. This is practiced throughout, and makes the whole thing eminently usable. I almost feel one could run it on the fly.
  • Nice new spells and magic items.
  • No railroading. What is presented is an adventure site in the truest sense - a site in which to have adventures. Not an imposition of an adventure upon the group.

The Bad

  • Perhaps I am being unfair, because this is an entirely subjective criticism, but the overall tenor of the setting is not to my taste. It is to my eye very much situated in the kind of Raymond E. Feist or Steven Eriksson vein of what I call MDF - Melodramatic Dark Fantasy. There is lots of doom, blood and misery. Everything feels portentous. Nothing really raises a smile. Not so much LotFP's excessive gore and horror, but more a prevailing mood of po-faced epic fantasy. This more than anything else would probably discourage me from running it.
  • Far be it for me to criticise, but it could have done with a proper proofread. 
  • The DM is encouraged to give little XP bonuses for PCs doing intelligent things (100 XP for using the trappings of guards as a disguise) or for doing vaguely plot-related activities (500 XP for rescuing a particular prisoner). I'm just not a fan of this. If PCs behave intelligently the results should be their own reward - likewise if they do something significant, like rescuing an NPC from harm. Put more simply, I prefer the rewards for good play to develop within the fiction (intelligent use of disguise helps you get past the next set of guards, for example, rather than giving you +100 XP). 
  • Irregular coin totals (98gp, 133sp, and the like). Have we fought and died in vain? Round them to the nearest 25, for heaven's sake. 

The Ugly

  • I feel guilty for confessing that my personal preference is for no art rather than bad art. I have a soft spot for truly terrible and amateurish art which does not present itself as anything other. But too many of the pieces here aspire to be good, without quite getting there. I would have preferred the module to have had mostly text and maps (or to have used stock images) if the alternative is slightly drab and uninspiring illustrations. 


This is worth purchasing. My misgivings are mostly due to personal taste; in terms of the nuts and bolts, this is an exemplary module.

4 out of 5 becs des corbins

Saturday, 15 May 2021

The Tournament of the Gods, First Round (3): Iron Golem and Aquatic Elves

There is no further sign of Sleep, for the time being at least; if he indeed creeps among the cedars, he is too quiet and too clever to show even a trace of his presence. The Skurtch, full of the magnanimity of victory as well as wine, goes to look in on the Sucklings and finds them still greedy at the teat. It will be a long time yet before they slumber. The tournament can go on.

The next Gods to be paired against each other are the Elder Sister, unsmiling and haughty in her grey cuirass and greaves, and Lap-Laz, reptilian and blue. Lap-Laz wastes no time in revealing his champion: a great armoured figure forged of solid iron, ponderous with grotesque weight, which he sets on the blanket to a round of gasps from the onlookers.

"Wasn't it you who was complaining of the use of poison in the last bout?" hisses the Elder Sister as she watches the golem march across the felt. "How can my minions even harm that construct?"

"He is like all sticklers for fairness," says the Droll Knave, who is busy slurping a gourd of apricot brandy. "When he personally is concerned, all of a sudden the concept becomes flexible."

The Elder Sister sniffs and sets her shield face down on the blanket. Out of it emerge a host of greenish, web-fingered, flap-footed elves, dripping salt water from their lank hair, wielding nets and tridents. They are led by three mighty warrior women and a great hero carrying a long lance; hunched and ungainly on the land, they arrange themselves into four groups - the women each lead a band of 20, and the hero a band of 16. 

"We must make this a fair contest!" says the Skurtch. "Those sea elves cannot hope to survive!" 

"Agreed," says a voice from the onlookers. "What pleasure is there in watching a slaughter?" 

"Here," says the Droll Knave. He steps onto the blanket and taps a fingertip to the tip of the aquatic elf hero's lance. It begins to gleam with yellow light. "That will give them a fighting chance."

The first band of elves, led by the hero, circle the golem. Their tridents cannot harm it. They plan to trap it with nets long enough to give their hero a chance to damage it. Four race forward and surround it, and hurl their nets. Three go astray but the fourth covers the golem. The hero then darts in and thrusts his lance into its thigh. A pathetic scratch, but a scratch nonetheless. The golem tears away the net with its fists. 

The four elves in the first wave retreat; four more come forth. Two nets now fall on the golem, though one of the elves slips and manages to become himself entangled. The hero strikes again, hitting the same spot, this time forcing the lancetip deep into scratching metal. The golem again rends the nets which bind it. Lap-Laz smacks his lips and tuts, wafting his tail restlessly. The Elder Sister sits cross-legged, straight-backed. The other Gods are watching keenly. "A tactical one," says Ya-Besh. "It has been a while."

The dance goes on. The golem is netted once more, and struck again, this time in the groin, with the sound of crunching metal. Once again he frees himself from his bonds. It looks as though the pattern will repeat itself until the golem's oblivion. But something upsets it. The golem lurches suddenly forward and slams the hero with its fist, sending him staggering back five paces and down to his knees. His ribcage is a ruin and blood bubbles from his lips; not dead, not quite, but thereabouts. He staggers to his feet, leaning on the lance. The last four members of his band net the golem once more and the hero, coughing and spitting red, jabs again with the lance, driving it into the golem's flank. It hurls off its bindings and the hero retreats, surrounded by his band; they have no more nets, and are replaced by the first of the warrior women with her soldiers. She seizes the lance and takes up the charge.

The Gods murmur their approval at the tactic, All except for Lap-Laz, who holds out his hand for the Droll Knave's brandy and pours a glug of it down his throat, and the Elder Sister, who approves of nothing save emotional restraint. 

But the tide of combat can flow and ebb with all the caprice of the sea. Perhaps because she is unused to the lance, or perhaps from sheer misfortune, despite the waves of net attacks from her men the first warrior women cannot find purchase on the iron golem's frame. The jabbing lance continually misses, or scrapes off the golem's armour with shrieks of metal. As the last four of her elves cast their nets ineffectually wide, the golem is free to bring its open palm slapping down upon her skull and almost carelessly cave it in. Her body flops sideways, and pinkish jelly leaks onto the blanket; the Gods laugh appreciatively, and the game is afoot.

The next warrior woman comes forward; her elves lead the golem away from the twitching corpse of her comrade to allow her time to take up the lance. But she is no more effective. The spectators know that the golem lacks the capacity to learn, yet it almost seems as though it now has the beating of the elves' tactic. Once again, the waves of net-throwers eventually fail and give it an opening, and it is able to pound the lance-bearer with a fist, slamming her sideways so that her spine snaps in twain and she lands on the ground some yards away already stone dead. Her men fall back in disorder. 

If the Elder Sister's demeanour remains unchanged, Lap-Laz has somewhat altered. He now swallows pilchards from a pot, curling his tail delightedly about himself. The other Gods are silent. They watch. Here come the last 20 net-armed elves and their leader, who now carries the lance. Three waves of four net-throwers come forward to no avail. But then come another four and the golem is caught. The warrioress lunges and skewers the golem through the belly - the point of the lance passing out through its back. She clings on with both hands. The final four elves come forward to throw, but their nets go astray! The watching Gods are on their feet. The golem almost nonchalantly takes a hold of the warrioress's head and crushes it like an egg.

Pandemonium now among the Gods as the elves regroup. Their net tactic has failed. Now the time has come for steel hearts. They must die for their hero. 

A phalanx is formed. The hero - wounded, maybe dying - once more has the lance. A rank of six elves stands in front of him. Their task is to die but to buy for him enough time to make his attacks from the rank behind. The others crowd in from the rear, ready to take the place of those who fall. They advance on the golem. It dispatches one elf with a simple punch, but the lance is once more singing in the hands of its original owner, and the hero drives the point home. The elves close ranks. Another is bashed to brutal death; the lance once more thrusts home. It is all Lap-Laz can do to stop himself from interfering. He capers about on the edge of the blanket and almost retches up his pilchards; the other Gods edge away; the Elder Sister remains watching in motionless repose. Again the elves close ranks. Again the golem strikes, picking one of his opponents up by the ankle and flinging his victim into the air. Again the lance hits home!

The golem is badly damaged. It sways. Staggers. The elves crowd in. The hero attacks. The point of the lance thrusts in beneath its chin. The Gods leap to their feet. Lap-Laz cannot watch, and hurls a mustard pot at a nearby tree. The golem stiffens and straightens for a moment...wobbles...and slams to the ground and is still. 

Lap-Laz has sunk onto his knees. Whirling around, he fixes his gaze on the Droll Knave. "You!" He shrieks. "Another gourd of brandy is the least you owe me for that trick."

The Skurtch and Ya-Besh come and put their arms around the blue lizard. "You overreached," Yab-Besh tells him. "A little unfairness goes a long way in these matters. You went too far and outraged the conscience of the Gods."

The Elder Sister carefully sets down her shield for her elves to clamber on, bearing their hero aloft. She allows him the briefest of smiles as he looks up at her in worship. Her sea elves advance.