Remember Your Training

I’m trying to process the verdict in the case of Philando Castile’s death. With the dashcam video now publicly released, I can only shake my head and wonder how anyone can justify or explain away his shooting.

I’m not a trained officer. I’m totally an armchair quarterback. I’m not privy to all the details revealed in court. It’s easy to second-guess and hindsight is 20-20 and all that

I know every situation is different and no two officers might respond the same to a given encounter. I understand that an officer is at risk and is naturally going to be thinking about how to protect themselves. I am deeply grateful for those who are willing to wear a badge and place themselves in harm’s way to maintain law and order in our society. I want police officers going home to their families at the end of their shifts…

…But I want civilians going home to their loved ones too.

Every situation is different and yet there are videos of white dudes walking around waving guns at police officers, and they don’t end up shot… videos of white guys wrestling cops and reaching for their guns, but they don’t end up choked to death or gunned down at close range… instances of white guys shooting up churches or movie theaters and ending up in cuffs to face trial when other people are sitting in their cars complying with an officer’s instructions and that’s a life-threatening situation.

Again, every situation is different, and I’m not privy to all the details. But I would have to be intentionally blind or ignorant to pretend there’s not an obvious trend toward increased use of force against minorities. Studies show higher use of non-lethal force against minorities is a fact. Incidents of lethal force by the statistics may not be higher but the perception certainly exists and it’s causing distrust between police and the communities they serve.

I saw a video marketing a cheap sleeve that holds all one’s identification and vehicle paperwork. Before an officer approaches the car, you can place that over the door so that everything is readily available, and no reaching for anything is necessary, thus preventing any fear or misunderstanding when you comply with the direction to produce paperwork or identification.

It sounds like an unfortunate necessity after what was done to Castile, who seemingly tried to do everything right.

At some point I feel like we need to ask, how much fear is enough when dealing with a police officer? How compliant must one be? How deferential, how cautious, how meticulous in every response, every motion, every action?

Do civilians – particularly civilians of color – have to behave as if professionally trained for encounters with police? It sure seems that way… and it makes me wonder why it’s not the other way around.

—–

“Remember your training and come back safe

to the land of the free and the home of the brave”

It’s a speech that we save for those fully grown

For soldiers deploying into a war zone

For young men and women just over eighteen

Who experience challenges we’ve never seen

But for far too many, that’s not the first time they’ve heard

Someone giving them warning with similar words

We say all lives matter but it’s clear that they don’t

And we say it gets better but it looks like it won’t

And we hush down the voices loud and outspoken

And we tell them relax, let’s not fix what’s not broken

And we say each encounter has some subtle difference

And we remind the protesters to presume others’ innocence

But the man in the car who did all that was asked of him

Got shot with his daughter in the back seat to witness it

Seems to me there’s a pattern anyone can make out

Clear enough to see beyond all reasonable doubt:

Out playing? Get shot.

Obeying? Get shot.

Run away? Get shot.

Wedding day? Get shot.

Ask why? Get shot.

Comply? Get shot.

Justified? It’s not!

It’s a speech that some give to their kids ‘cause they have to

If you want to live through this, better know what to do

Hands in sight, Sir or Ma’am, be polite, watch your tone

And if you can help it don’t get stopped alone

But maybe live-stream everything from your phone

Otherwise your side might never be known

If it’s your word or theirs, you’re going to to lose

But remember, take care with the actions you choose

‘Cause all they need to say is they feared for their life

And then anything that they do’s justified

So remember your training and come back safe

In this land of the “free” and this home of the “brave”

Finding Allies

Readers: This is a scene I wrote for a character in a tabletop roleplaying game, someone out to do good even if their powers are misunderstood and condemned by society at large.


Fleuris ducked down the alleyway between wooden shops and hawker’s stands near the Quay, weaving her way between the meandering peasants ogling things they could never afford. She shot a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of sunlight sparkling off two shields emblazoned with the six-point sun of Aulivar.

Soulforged—champions of Justice and unwavering bastions of virtue. They’d chased her across mountains and rivers, over leagues and tendays. She’d tried to ditch them in the dark corners of every town and city in the ‘Marches, but still they maintained their pursuit.

Even among their zealous order, few sins earned such relentless retribution as necromancy.

If only they could let me explain… if only they could understand.

Her friends would be waiting at the docks… Trenton strumming his lute and singing a sailor chanty, Galla sharpening her longswords, Hakri meditating and memorizing a fresh array of war-spells. But the three companions wouldn’t be enough by themselves to take on the pirate crew… so Fleuris intended to bring help.

It shouldn’t be far now, and the ritual wouldn’t take long—provided the Order lost the trail along the way. Her prize lay at the edge of Mirelenai’s sprawl of ramshackle buildings and flimsy shanties. The dread pirate Bloodhook the Brutal, Captain of the mighty Dire Shark, scourge of the Bay of Raentallas, lay wrapped in tight sheets in a shallow grave outside the town. After the mutiny, Bloodhook’s crew buried him on land to prevent his spirit from returning to the seas he loved and lorded over—one last spiteful jab at the savage master who had beaten them into submission.

Now the Dire Shark sailed the bay once more, tormenting seafaring merchants and plundering their ships’ holds. The Seamistress would pour out a chest full of gems and gold coins on anyone who sent the Dire Shark to the ocean’s floor.

“Seize that girl!” a voice shouted from much too close behind her. Another shouted, “The Ghostskin in purple,” and Fleuris gasped. She zipped down a narrow walkway that stank like an open sewer, trying not to consider the filth staining the hem of her burgundy skirt. The deep violet cloak wrapped around her wispy frame obscured her face from view, and her gloves of thick, black lace helped hide the tell-tale alabaster skin the Order sought.

She hustled through the dim-lit walkway, headed for the sunlight at the far end. A few paces from the street, she stumbled over an unseen obstacle like a tree root, and glanced down, squinting in the darkness. A body of some poverty-stricken peasant lay slumped against a wall, not yet dead a full tenday, judging by the rate of decay.

Fleuris probed the supernatural realm with her heightened senses and latched onto a glowing spark of life hanging in limbo. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the soul, then again to the body on the ground. She yanked the life force from the ether and shoved it into the corpse, then watched the fruit of her labor.

The body clambered to its feet, loosing a swarm of flies and dropping chunks of flesh. Dead eyes stared at Fleuris, waiting.

She doffed her cloak, threw it over the corpse’s shoulders, and sent it a forceful command. Then she slipped into the crowds on the street, her step calm and sure despite the racing thrash of emotions and the rapid drumbeat in her chest.

After passing a few merchants, Fleuris paused at a tailor’s stand and reached for her coinpurse. “How much for the forest green cloak there,” she asked, “with the silver trim?”

While they exchanged offers and counter-offers, Fleuris caught the glimpse of her violet cloak near the walkway she’d passed through. The animated corpse shambled into the street and lumbered away from her, toward the busy docks at the heart of the town.

Fleuris threw the new garment over her shoulders and clasped the smooth material with a silver brooch under her chin. Then she froze in fear. Two dozen paces away, she spotted the pair of Soulforged from the Order, stomping their way through the crowd toward her.

“Undead!” Someone shouted in the distance, and another voice chimed in. “A walking corpse near the Ragged Sail! To arms!”

Other cries joined the throng, and the two Soulforged halted their approach. Then they dashed toward the commotion, swallowing whole the hook and bait she’d left them.

Fleuris turned her back to them and strode away with as casual a pace as she could muster. This road would curve toward the fields and foothills outside the town. A short walk by the bay in the afternoon breeze would lead to the grove which held Bloodhook’s remains.

Buried on a slope within earshot of the sea, but laid in a grave that faced away from the water… With cruel care, the Dire Shark’s crew had chosen the site of Bloodhook’s final resting place.

Not final, Fleuris corrected herself. He will rise again… I’ll see to that. Though he did nothing to atone for his crimes in life, he shall do much to repay them in death.

After all, Trenton and Galla had asked for allies on their quest. They didn’t specify living allies.

 


Note: This was written and inspired partly by discussions about whether a necromancer in D&D could possibly be considered “good.” My thoughts on the subject are found here, but I’d love to hear yours.

The Means Condemn the End

A post in which I contemplate something related to tabletop roleplaying games. Roll a Wisdom saving throw with a DC of 16; on a failure, you’re a geek (Level 5).

In my recent return to tabletop RPGs, I’ve joined some Facebook groups, discussed ideas with gamer friends, and watched some Youtube videos–both of live-streamed games and thoughts on how to run the game better.

One topic caught my eye: someone suggested the possibility of a “good” necromancer character, which triggered a lot of discussion. Shortly after reading the back-and-forth, I chatted with a co-worker about an upcoming group. “I’m thinking necromancer,” she said, which led to further discussion of the idea. The next day, I spotted a panel of experienced players covering a variety of topics, including:

Is necromancy inherently evil?

If you’re not familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons, first off, it’s not the gilded double-door into a witches’ coven or a neon-lit path into Satanism. Players take on the role of a hero or heroine in a fantasy setting: perhaps the beefy fighter or barbarian (think Aragorn, Eowyn or Conan), or a bearded wizard (Gandalf or Dumbledore). Maybe they choose a stealthy rogue or burglar (Bilbo Baggins, maybe Arya Stark) or someone with the power to heal (Elrond or Galadriel). One person plays the rest of the fantasy world… everything from the squire polishing armor to the great personalities like Jamie Lannister, Queen Cersei, and King Joffrey… all the bad guys, from the unnamed scrub Bandit #3 to the White Walkers to Ramsay Bolton and even Danaerys’ dragons.

In a game like this, monsters lurk around every corner, many of them with civilized faces to mask their dark hearts. In a game like this (usually), magic is real and so are the gods and goddesses who grant divine power to their faithful.

In a game like this, a wizard or other magic-user might even learn how to raise the dead and command the skeletons or zombies produced to fight for him or her.


It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you know all that already, so I’ll stop explaining the concepts and get back to the question:

Can there be such a thing as a “good” necromancer?

In other words, like the title suggests, in a game like D&D, are there some methods or powers that you cannot possibly justify using for noble purposes?

I flipped on the YouTube video of the discussion panel and skipped to the part about necromancy, hoping for some unique twists to add to my own ideas. To my surprise, all the participants shot the idea down without hesitation.

The best argument pointed out that in all societies, grave-robbing and defiling burial grounds are strongly forbidden and frowned upon. It’s kind of a universal rule. That being the case, one expects some severe consequences for any necromancer–a person who uses magic to animate the dead bodies of ancestors or loved ones. I think that’s a valid point and a consideration for how other characters in-game would interact with such an oddity. Fair point.

But then it devolved to “That’s just boring, lame character building.”  “A necromancer is evil just like paladins are lawful good.”  “It doesn’t make any sense–why in the would she do this?” One guy’s whole argument was “Necromancers are evil, because I ran a game with a guy who played one as the stereotypical ‘muahaha I shall make a city of undead and rule over it.’ And that dude was a jerk–I mean, apart from being a necromancer, he just was a bad person in game.”

I strongly disagree with all of these points, and not just because the idea of the good necromancer inspired a character and some creative writing. (I posted a scene with Fleuris earlier.)

I also think these points are poor arguments. So let me tackle these in order:

Good Necromancer is boring. Lame character building. 

Sure, if you want to create something that follows cookie-cutter norms. I suppose “the generous thief” or “the intelligent barbarian” or “the conflicted paladin” would also be lame.

Playing a character that doesn’t quite fit a stereotype–or rather, outright challenges it–can lead to fantastic role-playing moments.

In my first campaign, I had a player who rolled random dice for every decision about the character he was making. He ended up a Dwarf Paladin of Nature… something that doesn’t really fit the standard fantasy tropes. It made his backstory come alive–an outcast from his clan because of his strange religious views, a perfect ally to the husband and wife pair of elf rangers in the party, a hero with a cause to champion and built-in conflict a DM can exploit–er… use to craft interesting encounters.

Similarly, I had a player running a rogue in one campaign who, on our downtime, would tell me what his character was doing in the city. While his allies were off pursing personal goals and looking for leads on the next big score, the rogue would donate half his earnings to the orphanage that took him in as a child, and volunteer time with the kids. No one knew this was going on “in game” because it happened in messages and emails. His party members even got to the point of joking about how “you know how the rogues are, always sneaking some money and pick pocketing their way through the market.” But he played the most generous and selfless character I’ve seen in a campaign.

Yeah, playing against type is super lame. Don’t do it.

Of course there may be role-playing consequences. Not everyone will welcome a necromancer with open arms. Not everyone will buy the idea that “I’m using these powers for good.” But that’s all part of the fun and the conflict which makes RPGs great.

A necromancer is automatically evil, like paladins are automatically good.

One flaw in that statement: Depending on the edition of the game, paladins aren’t inherently good. If you’re devoted to an evil or chaotic deity, you probably lean toward Chaotic or Evil alignments. If a “good” deity can grant their champions powers and favor, so can a bad one. Paladins are just a mechanic for describing a warrior who is committed to a cause and blessed with divine power to pursue that cause.

Similarly, necromancy is a tool… one traditionally associated with evil, perhaps, but still a tool. But this logic is lost on some. One of the DMs in the YouTube video actually argued as follows:

“It just doesn’t make sense. Here you are, going after the evil necromancer, and the guy walking along next to you is a necromancer?”

The flaw in that logic is revealed when you substitute any class or archetype for “necromancer.” There are evil wizards, but the party doesn’t kill their resident magic-user before fighting an evil wizard. An evil cleric or assassin might be the villain in an encounter, but that doesn’t make the party cleric or rogue a villain.

Magic, like any class power, is a tool. How one uses it communicates more than the nature of the tool. A paladin who curb-stomps defenseless enemies because “they’re bad guys” isn’t what we’d call good. A necromancer that uses her powers to protect others and serve a noble cause shouldn’t be what we call bad.

It doesn’t make any sense.

For one, you’re in a fantasy setting. Nothing makes sense. Someone is channeling power into their weapon to deliver a blast of radiant power that damages the enemy. Someone else is waving their hands and becoming a human flame-thrower. Another person communes with supernatural entities that grant her otherworldly powers. But the necromancer trying to do something heroic? That, sir, is where I draw the line!

Necromancy used for “good” absolutely makes sense… if we try to consider how that can work. Imagine the noble who tells his subjects, “Our ancestors fought to establish this kingdom against all odds, spilling their very blood on the rocks where our city’s walls now stand. And now they return, ready to stand beside us, once again willing to take up arms against those who threaten all they worked to build!”

Imagine the party member whose personal quest, like Fleuris, is to find and raise the bodies of infamous villains or evildoers as part of their penance for their sins. Is it twisted, misguided, a little off? Yeah–and that’s what makes it great!

Guns don’t kill people, my horde of skeletal minions kill people.

Needless to say, I fall right into the camp that deems necromancy an amoral (okay maybe highly questionable) practice where what matters most is the end result. Use it to establish your undead army and create a necropolis to rule over? Evil. Use it to cleanse the necropolis and eliminate a growing threat to the nearby kingdom of goodly peoples? Good.

As in all things D&D, creativity and fun are what matter most. I’m having fun imagining Fleuris and the sorts of situations she might find herself in. I hope others are inspired to take a trope and turn it on its head… then run with it and see where the story leads.

What do you think?

Am I off course? Am I missing some key point? Let me know in a comment; I’d love to hear your point of view.

Numbering Days

This month, I turned 40. While that number itself doesn’t seem like some monumental change or drastic milestone worthy of a mid-life crisis, I do find myself thinking of a familiar passage from Psalm 90.

“The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
‭Psalms‬ ‭90:10, 12‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Well, that’s bad news. At best, I’m at the half-way point… and I’ve never been super fit or strong, so let’s be honest about those odds!

Obviously, this is biblical poetry and not some literal maxim about the extent of human aging. Thanks to modern medicine and the progress of civilization, we have folks who live much longer. Sadly, we all know people who never reach 70 years of age.

I can’t find the source of the quote, but there’s a phrase that comes to mind: 


To be clear, I post this without any morbid contemplations of aging or death, without any fear of a life wasted, or opportunities missed. It’s just the thought that comes to mind as I considered my birthday and the significance of turning 40. 

Going back to Psalms, the only day that’s guaranteed in life is your last, and there’s no telling when it comes. Like a game of Russian Roulette played with years or decades, sooner or later, that final day arrives, whether you’re 17 or 70 or 107.

I focus on verse 12–its reminder that there is an impending finality, its encouragement that wisdom is found by living in light of that truth. Not that I believe I can number my days, at least not with any fidelity… but I can remember that, however many there may be, that number is ticking down.

This forces a refocusing onto what I believe matters. My faith; my relationships; those I love; the sharing of good times and fellowship; ministering love and kindness and connection; sparking laughter in a heavy heart; simply being present in a hard time. 

I’ve spent more time lately planning out tabletop games than writing fiction, because to me and several friends of my family, that connection and shared enjoyment around the table is something magical and exciting. Planning a role-playing game also scratches the creative itch of the writer in me… except I’m writing for an audience of 5 or 8 players instead of blog or book readers.

The pragmatic in me says “Yes, but isn’t this a grand waste of time?” (At least, what little pragmatism hasn’t been defeated by perpetual procrastination and my playful, lazy nature.) 

But it’s not about the game; it’s about the people. Shared humanity and my faith both lead me to see lasting value where others might not.

For now, I still need to learn to number my days so I can live wisely. But I know that 80 > 70. So I’m off to the gym to hop on a bike, plot out some interesting stories for the next gaming session, and work on that “by reason of strength” thing.
What do you do to “number your days” or invest in what matters? Let me know in a comment – maybe it’s an idea I could use too!

In Defense of Railroading

The players sit, holding their lucky dice. The lights are dim, and eerie music plays from a YouTube video to set the mood. The Dungeon Master looks over his screen and describes the setting…

DM: You see a well-worn path that winds between the trees, leading deeper into the gloomy forest.

Player 1: Well, forget that noise. I’d rather stay on the road and finish my journey into town.

DM: An overwhelming mist has descended, obscuring everything from view… everything except the path.

Player 2: Uh… I really wanted to get to town to purchase some new weapons and talk to the Mage’s Guild about new spells. Can we maybe set up camp and wait out this weather?

DM: You could… but now arcs of electricity tear through the clouds of mist, and the hairs on your skin rise. Anyone close to the mist is likely to take damage. But the path remains clear.

Early on in my development as a DM, I learned about “railroading” the players toward your intended destination. If a Dungeon Master / Storyteller forces players toward a particular path in obvious, heavy-handed ways, the game feels like the characters are passengers on a tour bus, being shown the sights but unable to direct the vehicle’s course. When a game about choices feels like you have none, you’re probably being railroaded.

That’s a bit of an excessive example, but this sort of thing can be pretty common if the DM has prepared an adventure and expects or demands that the players go along.

Railroading always ruins the fun… except for when it doesn’t.

The beauty of a tabletop RPG over video games is that anything’s possible. Any genre, any style, any action, any decision is available as an option to the player.

While that can lead to sensible decisions, increased immersion, and even awesome RP-ing, in certain groups it can also go awry. When problem players are willing to affect the entire group in order to get their personal jollies, the abundance of options creates opportunity for their hijinks. And when several players are new to the game, infinite choices can lead to no choice being made in a timely manner.

For example, upon entering a new setting and receiving a map of a mining village, some parties will see opportunities to go off on their own instead of staying with the group.

The same scattered attention can happen when players are provided a few different choices outside of civilization. When they come upon a wrecked wagon with signs of goblin prints but no indications of an attack, one person will suggest following that trail while another might try to chase down the other wagons in the caravan. And yet another is convinced there’s something in the ransacked wagon worth investigating or discovering.

Players can debate at length about what to do, where to go, who to talk to, how to accomplish a task… and every new bit of information starts the whole process over again.

This is where a little railroading may be better than none. I typically see three ways the game gets derailed: individual player actions, lack of personal motivation, and lack of flexibility on the DM’s part.

Moments in the Spotlight

It’s great for each player to have their time to shine, their moment when their character’s set of skills or connections can make the difference between victory or defeat. “Moment” is the key word, however.

When an individual turns the session into their private quest, it may make sense for the character’s story and motivations, but it also makes for a slow game. The other players are left “watching the show” as the DM has to interact in character(s) with this party member who has gone off on their own.

If multiple players do this at the same time, it turns into a nightmare of interwoven conversations and distractions. And while they all sort out their personal interests, players focused on the primary party goal are left staring at the walls or fiddling with their dice.

DM: You follow the leads for the missing caravan driver and arrive in the village of Choraulis after nightfall. The so-called guardsmen posted at the gate — miners, really — give you a close eye but let you pass. There’s a good bit of laughter, music, and noise at the finely-decorated inn to your left. The miners also have a raucous dive of a cantina set up near their shanties.

PC 1: I want to search around the inn, just to get a feel for the place, see what sort of people are in there.

PC 2: That orchard over there… is that, like, a nature shrine? I want to go over there and check it out.

PC 3: Is there something like a Mage’s Guild here? I’d like to find out what kind of magic spells and items they have.

PC 2: So am I at the Shrine?

DM: Yes, it’s a shrine of Nature, and the two ladies who run it are surprised and excited at the idea of a Dragonborn Druid – (chipper voice) “What an oddity! How pleasant to make your acquaintance!”

PC 1: If those guards are still there, I’d like to see how approachable they are, if they seem friendly, that sort of thing. Perception, I assume?

DM: No, that’d be Insight. Give me a roll. Ok, you spot one with a small insignia, and it seems like the other guys defer to him. He looks friendly and inviting, although a little on edge.

PC 4: Would I have contacts among the merchants in this town?

DM: Yeah, certainly. Um… this store over here – the gem cutter? They work with your guild on the regular.

PC 1: (to the guard) My good man, I am seeking a traveler who may  have come this way with a merchant caravan. Have any wagons reached the village in the last day or two?

DM: (Gruff voice) Why, yes, three came in a couple days ago, from Delfindor.

PC 2: While in this shrine, can I commune with nature and see if there really is some corruption or negative influence affecting the area?

DM: Yes, a Nature check, please. (Chipper voice) It’s been hard these last six months since everything started turning strange. Wild growth in the mountains–like a whole summer passed in a tenday’s time. And then there’s the undead–

PC 5: Guys. Can we go find the dude we came here for? Maybe someone in the noisy inn knows something.

PC 3: I’d also like to find an alchemist or maybe an herbalist?

PC 1: We’re looking for a man who came in with those wagons. Any chance you’ve seen him or know where they’re staying?

Solution:  A place like a city or friendly settlement might feel like a lot of available options. For groups where this becomes a problem, consider if there’s an in-game reason to restrict those options until the primary story or quest is sorted out.  A town under siege because of some rogue “heroes” or a teeming horde of undead isn’t going to have shops open for business, nor are the town leaders going to take time to chat about the latest rumors of interest to the party.

As a positive spin, find a way to interact with the players in the downtime between sessions. While it may seem awkward to go back over “here’s what I wanted to do in town during the middle part of our group game session,” it’s infinitely better than destroying the ‘group’ part of game play.

I’ve had tons of fun working over instant messages or in later conversations sorting out with players what their character would do. These sidebar conversations, handled outside of game time, have created new plot hooks to weave into the main game, developed the characters’ motivations, advanced their stories, and provided opportunities for players to role-play who might not be as comfortable with it at the table in front of peers.

“My character does/doesn’t care about that.”

Some players are happy to let you know they’re not about whatever’s on the menu. On the one hand, if they’re really trying to role-play their character’s ideals and interests, this is good feedback. A party of chaotic neutral characters might not be interested in saving the princess from the evil demon for the Greater Good of the Kingdom and all that is Just and Right.

Conversely, a snippet of setting or information might look like a really interesting side quest to one of the players, if that’s a lead their character would pursue.

“There’s a shelf full of old tomes and parchments detailing magic rituals? Uh, guys, I know the orc warlock is going to sacrifice the villagers to open a portal to the Abyss, but… can we just hang out here for like a day while I thumb through all of this?”

“Look, near the wrecked wagon–a cry for help in the language of druids. And judging by the tracks, it was left by one of the goblins. Why does one of those creatures know Druidic? How strange. I’d like to find this goblin…”

Likewise, these reactions are great feedback for what to include when you do want to hook that player… and what to avoid if distractions are a problem.

Solution: First, be sure to take these things into account when devising how your PCs get quests. Not everyone is a do-gooder out to save the world… similarly not all characters need a bag of gold jangled before their eyes to gain their assistance.

Place the individualized hooks where a distraction won’t matter. Sure, it might make sense that all the books full of magic are in the library the players find early on as they explore the castle…

But why not have large empty spaces among the books where it’s clear that a significant number of tomes have been carried off? Perhaps even a note from the big bad evil guy’s magic-user sidekick, explaining, “I borrowed these and brought them downstairs to my study. I think these are the key to opening a rift between our world and the realm of our masters…”

Now the distraction points the interested player and the party toward the confrontation you’ve already planned.

Perhaps the sight of a crude message in Druidic would be better placed at the opening of a goblin lair, to create questions and unique twists where the players already are instead of offering a detour from where you’re hoping they’ll go.

All Aboard? or All a-bored?

The DM has a huge role to play in keeping things moving smoothly, and illusion of choice is a great tool in the toolbox.

It’s awesome to create that “sandbox” feel of a living world where something could be happening anywhere the players go. However, in creating such a setting, a DM can get overly focused on the geography and current state of the parts the players will see.

I prepared an encounter with a band of orcs… but they decided to take the road south instead of east to where the orcs actually are…

The players wanted to get information about what the zealots are planning, but the leaders of that sect aren’t located in this part of town…

In a recent session, I made the mistake of focusing heavily on the map I’d created of a settlement. As one of the players sought out contacts and information, he ended up getting sent back-and-forth across town because that’s where those people and places are. (After all, it’s on the map.)

It’s great to know what exists where in the setting, but a rigid approach can lead to the DM getting frustrated because the players turned down the wrong tunnel or traveled to “the wrong spot” when literally anywhere can be the right spot.

Solution: The hated part about railroading is when it looks like there is no other option or choice but forward in an undesirable direction. “The tunnel is a one-way path, and oh you want to go back up and out? Well you can’t because the tunnel collapsed behind you.”

Having options such as branching tunnels or different locations of interest in the region gives the players a sense of agency. “I want to turn left instead of heading deeper into the Underdark” is a choice.

But as the DM, you control the outcome of the choice. Whether they turn left, turn right, or go straight, they can still find their way to the encounter you have planned or receive the clues that they need to advance the story. Whether they go east to the forest or west to the mountains, they can still encounter the band of bad guys who happen to have items of value or plot hooks to move things along.

This isn’t so much “railroading” as it is teleporting a destination to the end of whatever tracks the players are on. (Okay, yeah, that’s railroading, but it can serve a purpose of keeping the game moving.)

One method I used in the past was to have short episodes or level-appropriate encounter settings prepared in advance — an orc camp, a bandit fort, a small drake’s underground lair. If it became obvious that the players weren’t heading the direction I’d assumed, or going after whatever “main” storyline I had prepped, these plug-and-play encounters could easily drop into the session without any significant disconnect or lengthy explanation.

I think of games like Skyrim. The beauty of it is that after the initial tutorial quest, you reach a road you can follow to the next main quest… or you can turn left and wander into the wilds. All throughout the world, you find sites and encounters, people up to no good or monsters in search of prey. It seems like a living world where other creatures are doing their thing whenever you’re not there. But each of these settings has its own segment of story or plot that triggers once you enter.

Fourth Edition had a book called Dungeon Delve which basically served this purpose – several pre-made sites and dungeons that could easily slide into an ongoing campaign when the DM doesn’t have a ton of time to prep something or when the PCs decide to go an unexpected direction.

Next Stop: Fun

For experienced gamers, it’s probably clear that the “collaborative” part of collaborative storytelling means the PCs should be somewhat willing to go along with the adventure provided. Most groups have no problems seeing some of the possible options and choosing which to pursue. For those, railroading is unnecessary and probably detrimental.

But if players seem confused about where to go or what to do, maybe a few tracks concealed beneath the mechanics of the game would help guide the players along toward the fun everyone seeks.

The Kinder Choice

Here’s a short story for Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle this week, where the word is restraint and the suggested genre is Historical Fiction, specifically Western. 

This is one of my current favorite characters, the gambler prophet whose dice give him insight into what’s to come. But this is a generation later, when the Gift has moved on to a new face – Annabelle Boudreaux, a troubled woman with a deck of cards that calls her to action. 

I really want to turn one of these into a NaNoWriMo book or similar project, but for now, they’ll pop up in short stories.

—-

The moon casts a bright silver light across the plains, and stars twinkle over the Falstaff Saloon. The street smells like manure and tabacca-spit despite the soft pitter-pat of rain, and cigar smoke rolls out the door like a fog. The music inside fills the breeze with a dancin’ tune, the fiddler better than this corrupt town deserves.

Mercado’s whole gang is inside. The man himself is upstairs—chasin’ sporting girls, countin’ blood money, maybe both.  The century may have turned, but men are pretty much the same as ever.

I feel the ache in my bones—joints that have seen a several dozen years complain at the thought of what’s to come. I put this life behind me twenty years ago, and I’m not keen on seeing it claw back out of the plot where I buried it.  

The young brunette next to me slides the last round into the chamber of her revolver. The Devil’s Sharpy, Annabelle Boudreaux has the Gift just like I once did—with a deck of cards instead of my old pair of dice. ‘Course she uses it pretty much the opposite of me.

“This is a mistake, Annabelle.”

“It was a mistake for him to snatch Aideen off the stage—one of many poor choices Mercado’s made over his lifetime.”

Aideen Brannaghan—Annabelle’s half-sister and partner-in-crime, a timid Irish lass who’s decent with a pistol, but deadlier with a pair of knives than anyone I know, once you spark her temper. We could really use her now… but then we wouldn’t need to be here in the first place.

“I meant us, alone, trying to take him down.”

“It’s what the cards said would come to pass.” She laughs, and the whiskey on her breath nearly gets me drunk. I wonder how she sees straight to shoot, but then I remember how the Gift worked in my day. It’d be hard to miss a target all glowed up like an electric lantern.

“Maybe something’s changed,” I venture, knowing how weak and futile the plea must sound.

Annabelle slides out a deck of gleaming cards and fans a dozen in her hand, every card a one-eyed Jack. The hearts catch my eye as important—something she never bothered to explain. I ain’t sussed out all of how she interprets what the Gift shows her.

“You of all people should know better, Mister ‘God’s Shooter’ himself.”

I spit on the ground. “A stupid nickname from a far-fetched story written by a fool.”

“Quite a few stories, or so I hear… the better part of ‘em true.”

“Not a lot of men you can trust. Pretty girl like you has to know that by now.”

“Men lie, but graves don’t. You ready?” She flashes me that smile of hers, then turns away before I can respond.

“You ain’t.” Like most women I’ve cared about, once she gets an idea in her head, there’s no dissuading her. My words are wasted before they’re out my mouth, but I say ‘em anyhow.

“Just try to keep up.”

With that, Annabelle dives through the swinging double doors of the saloon, and thunder booms from the pair of Colts in her slender fingers. The fiddler’s bow screeches to a halt and he dives behind the bar.

“Show some restraint,” I shout over the din, laying down some covering fire at the boys on the second floor. “You can’t just go in guns blazin’ like the Gift is some kind of magic shield.”

Annabelle shoots me a glare. “But that’s what you did for years.”

“An’ I got the scars to prove it.”

She plugs one of Mercado’s goons with a no-look over-the-shoulder shot. Makes me wonder if the Gift works different for her than it did for me. Then she gives me a raised eyebrow. “Pretty sure no one but Lucien ever landed a shot on you, Zack. You can’t lie to a natural born swindler.”

“I’m not talkin’ about my skin, girl. Some hurts, time don’t heal.”

“That much I already know. That’s why I’m here… to give back some of the hurt Mercado done to me and mine.” She fans the hammer and sweeps the room. Three more toughs drop to the hardwood floorboards. Quiet fills the main room downstairs, and there’s a muffled scream from the second floor.

“Aideen,” Annabelle shouts. She dashes up the steps, and I hobble after her quick as my age permits.

Before Annabelle reaches the double-doors of the master suite, gunfire tears through the polished wood. Annabelle shoulders through the doorway, guns at the ready, disappearing from my view.

Unexpected silence hangs over the saloon as I lurch toward the shattered doors. Once I reach the suite, I find Annabelle holding Aideen close, the younger girl half-dressed, her short splash of red hair tucked underneath Annabelle’s chin.

A wisp of smoke curls up from the pistol in Aideen’s shaking hand, and two bodies lay slumped in the corner with large crimson stains in their pretty white waistcoats. “Had to wait until I could get loose,” Aideen whispers. “But I almost—they were going to—“ She trails off, eyes squeezed shut.

Annabelle’s gaze remains fixed. Her hand doesn’t flinch at all, the barrel of her Colt trained on the bead of sweat runnin’ down the furrow between Mercado’s eyebrows. The man sits against the wall clutching the gunshot wound in his leg.

Annabelle’s finger tenses up on the trigger. Then she smirks. “Aideen, go get your knives.”

Aideen starts collecting her things and hands Annabelle one of the long steel blades.

“Let the law clean this up, girl. You done what you set out to do.”

“Oh no,” Annabelle says with a mirthless laugh. “He’s not buying his way off the gallows again. Getting Mercado was just the start. Now we can have some fun.” She turns a hungry grin his way, and he goes whiter than a playing card. “I’ve been waiting years for this, amigo.”

“Annabelle, don’t become the thing you hate. Trust me.”

“This man,” she says, waving the Colt in Mercado’s quivering face, “is a scourge on this whole Territory, a pus-filled boil of infection on the back of humankind.” Her face is red an’ steaming, her eyes like a locomotive furnace at full bore–and Mercado’s tied to the tracks up ahead-a that train. “The things he’s done deserve an eternity of all God’s wrath, and I think it’s fitting we get started in the here and now.”

“Think about what you’re doing, dammit.” I see the pistol flinch in her hand—gotta hope what I’m sayin’ might sink in. “You been given this foresight for a reason, a purpose, something bigger and greater than seekin’ your own self-interest.”

Annabelle swallows hard, and the barrel of the Colt dips toward the floor. “You’re right, Zack,” she says with a long sigh.

Then she blows Mercado’s brains across the wood-paneled wall.

“Christ have mercy, girl, what did I say? Show some restraint!”

Annabelle dumps the empty cartridges on the floor in the spreading pool of blood and hands the knife back to Aideen.

“I did,” she says, colder than a desert night. “You don’t know what all I had planned.”

The Trap of D&D

Growing up in a religious and conservative family in the 80s, I remember a few scares that swept through churches across America. Someone thought Teletubbies was an attempt to foist the “gay agenda” onto our children. Others worried that Star Wars embodied Eastern mysticism, turning precious young minds away from the truth of God’s Word, turning them toward duality. Eventually, card games like Magic the Gathering took the place of “greatest threat to American youth,” followed by the sweeping craze of young people reading a book series called Harry Potter.

But nothing held so much dark, terrible power as the bastion of evil, Dungeons & Dragons.

As part of my “intense training” I cast Level 2 Bag of Cheetos, Level 5 Mountain Dew, and Level 8 Vanishing Money… just a few more rulebooks and miniatures… that’s all I need…

Churches had tracts (small comics with a Christian message) that warned parents of the dangers. Christian musicians sang about how Satan-worshipers kept D&D books out as part of their natural paraphenalia and rituals. The game was no game, but rather a gateway straight to hell! After all, someone knew someone who knew someone who maybe killed themselves because their D&D character died in the game — nevermind the fact that, much like Superman or other heroes dying in comic books, the rules have always made it possible for characters to return to life. The game taught kids to cast spells, inducting them into real witchcraft and satanic rituals… or so the stories were told from church to church, parent to parent.

Plus, let’s face it, D&D kids can come off pretty weird, ranting about how “with his last conscious breath, my wizard used his level 4 burning hands to bathe the evil demon queen in flames while Tordek the dwarf cleric rolled a natural crit when he summoned the power of his gods to close the portal that led to the Abyss.”

And so it was that parents who never watched a moment of the game nor looked at a single page out of a book “knew” exactly what this devil-spawned trap held in store for their precious innocent ones.

It wasn’t until about 2007 that I really took a serious look at D&D and discovered what it is, and what it isn’t. I ran a few groups with co-workers and friends, and had immense fun. D&D is about telling cooperative stories… scripting surprises, twists, and turns into the various adventures… creating characters with exciting backstories, heroic ideals, and all-too-human flaws… learning to role-play the traits and qualities that might seem completely foreign in the real world.

Every group has a Story-teller or Dungeon Master a.k.a. DM, someone who puts together the setting, provides the description, plots out the battles, plans out the course of events, and portrays all the various faces that populate the world of the game. In groups I’ve seen, the DM and the players work together (to some extent) to figure out what makes for the best story, the most fun, the moments of high adventure and glorious victory. It’s a lot of work, but when everything goes smooth, it’s the most rewarding place at the table.

All the action is resolved with a roll of a 20-sided die and some number off a character sheet. Even if it seems ridiculous, players can try anything they want, and the DM has to (Fairly!) determine whether the effort succeeds or fails based on the roll of the dice plus the character’s ability to do whatever was attempted.

Player: “I want to somersault over the orc’s head to reach the princess before she falls into the death trap.”

DM: “That’s going to be some difficult acrobatics to pull off… but with some luck, you might do it. Give me a roll…”

A few weeks ago, one of my son’s friends found out I used to be a Dungeon Master, or DM. He and his friend had been trying to start a D&D game for some time, but they couldn’t find someone to be the DM. I volunteered, and started planning the campaign. Sure enough, a dear friend found out my son was getting involved in a D&D group, and responded with a concerned gasp. After all, it’s such a dangerous and evil thing.

To be fair, she’s a counselor and has seen some people go off the deep end with this or other hobbies. I think her concern is more for the risk that could be true of any of us–when something harmless and enjoyable starts to dominate our free time and energy.

But regarding those old fears I heard for years… Saying that playing D&D is a gateway to witchcraft and satanism is like saying that Axis & Allies makes a person more likely to become a skinhead and try to rebuild the Third Reich. It’s like claiming my Madden skills on the PS4 are a step on the path to an NFL contract.

Do some people go nuts with it? Certainly – just as we do with all sorts of hobbies and interests. But the camaraderie and joy I’ve seen around a table have been life-giving and inspirational.

Here’s a clip of Matthew Mercer – a voice actor in a number of video games and animated movies/shows – talking about the impact of this game and the style of art it involves. He really captures the essence of what makes this thing awesome.

Is D&D a trap, some gateway to dangerous places? Perhaps–but not in the way my church friends from the 80s thought. There’s a  magic involved, for sure, but it isn’t in make-believe treasures and pretend spellcasting…

It’s the power of cooperative story, the hush that comes over the room as someone describes what’s happening, and the rush of creative excitement as we decide what comes next.

It’s a trap, alright, and a hard one to escape. Want to try? Give me a roll.

 

Death House – an intro to 5E Ravenloft


A couple weeks ago I started prepping a campaign for a Dungeons & Dragons group. I met with the players, discussed expectations, and helped them create their characters.

My two older sons (ages 16 & 11) are part of the group, and I thought it would be good for them to try out their characters’ abilities before the whole group meets to start the campaign. We decided we’d play around with some light combat, exploration, and social interaction so they could practice their skills and role-playing.

My new favorite D&D book
Then The Curse of Strahd came in the mail. This book is 5th Edition’s version of Ravenloft, a popular campaign setting that goes back to the original D&D from the early 80s. Count Strahd von Zarovich is the central vampire villain, D&D’s version of Dracula, a character who appears in numerous products related to the game. I remember a fighting game and customizable card game that included Strahd among other notable characters from various expansions and supplements.

What impresses me most about 5th Edition’s core books is that they return the focus to elements of story-telling. 4th Edition was fun enough for me (and the first version I played). You could tell a story using those rules, but the system seemed to center on all the characters’ powers–daily abilities, encounter spells, at-will powers, feats and skills and so on. 5th Edition keeps some of that, but from the start, the books are built around the story the players and DM are trying to tell, from the subtle but evocative details described within a room to the long-term arcs and world-changing events that could form a thrilling campaign.

Curse of Strahd continues this trend beautifully. The first part of the book addresses how to run a horror-themed campaign instead of the usual swords-and-sorcery that D&D regulars might expect. The book also includes a player character background for someone who has endured a harrowing experience that forever scars their lives. Of course there is a long campaign arc with various locales, adventures, monsters, factions, and details necessary to run multiple sessions taking characters from level 1 to 10. As an option, there’s a short exploration adventure called Death House which is designed to bring new characters from level 1 to 3.

I decided to run Death House with my sons to give them a chance to learn their characters. I haven’t ever had as much fun with pre-made expansions as I did with this small excerpt from the larger campaign setting. To set the mood, we started just before dusk with the lights turned off and some creepy music playing from a YouTube track. My oldest son was immediately suspicious of everything, from the swirling mists (something like a magical side-effect of the corruption on the land) to the dirt road near the party’s campsite (something like a dirt road made of dirt that leads to a place).

After much cajoling, I got them to the actual house where the adventure was to take place. The book describes each room of the four story manor in great detail, and practices what it preaches about setting the horror tone. Some recurring bits of description show that not all is right in the Durst family manor. For example, almost every room has ornately carved wood paneling that seems like something artistic and lovely at first glance–say, children dancing in the woods. On closer inspection, characters can see corpses hanging from the trees, or swarms of bats attacking the children. The description of a spare bedroom addresses all the plain,. dusty furnishings, then includes the following: a smiling doll in a yellow dress sits in a nook under a window, her face covered in cobwebs like a wedding veil.

The kids in need of rescue, who send the PCs into the adventure
Without spoiling too much, each the most innocuous rooms or objects in the manor can prove dangerous… especially when my younger son decided to investigate everything.

Me: “The door creaks on rusty hinges as it swings open to reveal a dusty closet. Some tattered rags and old bars of soap clutter the shelf, and a broom leans against the back wall behind strands of ancient spiderweb.”

Younger son: “I investigate the room!”

Older son: “What? Why? It’s just a closet.”

Me: “Haha, seriously? Ok. Well, as soon as you step into the closet, the broom flies into the air, thrashing about, trying to beat you back. It’s magically animated and exceedingly hostile to intruders. Roll for initiative.”

This is all straight from the book, which mentions the animated broom of attack that goes on the offensive if anyone comes within five feet. I thought, “Why would anyone step into a dusty closet of worthless belongings?” To investigate, of course! Silly me–you never know what players are going to do.

Since I only had two players, I made a couple NPCs, especially since my older son is practicing healing as a cleric. He got his chance when the younger son’s rogue took a broomstick to the noggin and got knocked out. (Lesson learned? Perhaps? We’ll see.)

I made a gnome tank for hilarity’s sake, and she took a little abuse. Then I tried the “haunted one” background to make a warlock, who proved to be a fun NPC I’ll use in future efforts. She repeats the last few words of every sentence, but in a whisper. I stole this strange and seemingly unconscious mannerism from a girl who lived in our neighborhood some years ago. “We should proceed with caution with caution… the spirits here seem restless and vengeful and vengeful…

The haunted one background led to a character who witnessed a monster slaughtering dozens of innocents around her, yet for some reason it looked right at her and spared her life before continuing its rampage. As a result, she’s disturbed and broken, but it drives her to assist anyone in need even if the situation is dangerous. Additionally, her faith in divine beings is shattered, but she also talks to spirits no one else can see. The background provides for a random trinket selected from a list of 50 options designed for a gothic style campaign or setting–for example a clock that runs backwards for one hour every midnight, a coat stolen from a dying soldier, or a handmirror with an image of a bronze medusa on the backing. The options are all splendid and offer interesting hooks for future stories.

I wanted to play the NPC more than I ended up doing, but acting as DM and trying to run two distinct characters was a bit much to keep up with… plus I don’t like the idea of the DM playing a character, as it often leads to a sense of stealing the spotlight from the players.

Nevertheless, we had an exciting time and a great warm-up for the new characters my children made. We explored about halfway through the adventure in the first 3-hour session, then finished it off in a second session of similar length. It could have gone another session had we been thorough in exploring every hall and room. I revealed only what the characters could see, using a makeshift map hastily drawn on loose paper. (“You see a hall to the left and stairs that lead down. The chanting is stronger downstairs.”)

That left several rooms in the basement untouched, preventing a number of possible encounters from taking place.

The adventure is designed for leveling up based on story progress instead of experience points. Once the players reached the way downstairs, they hit level 2, regardless of what they have or haven’t completed. After they leave the manor, no matter how they complete the scenario, they reach level 3 and stand ready to delve deeper into 5th Edition Ravenloft.

While prepping for this D&D group, I noted with some chagrin the massive amount of crap I bought for 4th Edition. The pre-made, published adventures all remain unused, several of them still wrapped in plastic. I feared I might also dislike the campaign components of the 5th Edition books… but Curse of Strahd has proved well worth the time and money spent.

My Galway Girl

Ed Sheeran’s new YouTube video caught my eye in the trending videos the other morning:

The video is a fun romp through the nightlife of the town, from clubs to bars with a dance troupe and a tattoo parlor in between. Sheeran’s music always feels rich and full of inviting complexity to me–easy enough that you bop along to the beat like the usual radio pop, but with enough quality and skill baked in that you can really enjoy some subtle touches. Likewise, the catchy chorus is contrasted with his usual quick-witted wordplay and cadence. It’s a good example of everything I like about his albums.

Despite my love of Ed Sheeran’s music, that’s not what really drew me to check out the video.

About a year ago, I started a series of loosely connected short stories for the wonderful Rachael Ritchey’s weekly BlogBattle. I’d tried my hand at some varied pieces based on the prompts, but someone else had done an ongoing story with a couple interesting characters and their madcap antics. I thought that would be an interesting challenge.

Some combination of the League of Explorer content in Hearthstone and my kids’ enjoyment of the Indiana Jones movie series led me down a path toward a bumbling tough guy with the chiseled jaw and gleaming smile who gets all the credit, and his “hapless” assistant, the fiery redhead from Ireland who actually gets the job done and saves his bacon.

He’s the brash and dapper charmer who, heedless of danger, punches his way through a burial chamber full of Nazis to snag the mysterious  artifact and save the damsel in distress. She’s the “weak” sidekick checking meticulous research in her pouch, marking traps with flags, and disabling the Nazis’ death machine–all the while casting sidelong and suspicious glares at the obvious double-agent on his arm.

Enter Grant McSwain, Doer of Daring Deeds, and his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.

For a dash of realism, I did some wiki-browsing and found articles on supposedly authentic Irish phrases. Those searches led to a travel site for “places to visit in Galway, Ireland,” which seemed like the perfect hometown for this world-wandering adventurer. I loved what I read–it’s always fun trying (as much as one can over the Internet) to dive into the characteristics and unique qualities of a particular town or region.

To see it in living color–even if somewhat staged–is that much better. And while the song and video are entirely modern, Sheeran still conveys that ancient “don’t you wish you were here?” allure of the Emerald Isle.

If you haven’t seen the video, it’s fun and worth a view. And if you haven’t read the adventures of Grant McSwain, you can check the BlogBattle category of posts, or you can find them compiled on Wattpad here.

#BlogBattle entry – A Calculating Man

This week’s Blog Battle entry is for the word “bribe” in whatever genre I choose. This is the second half of last week’s story from the underworld featuring Dom the detective and his dearly loved Innova the spirit of creativity.

I’m a little bit late and a lot bit over the word count but here it is:

Statue of a red oni, from Wikipedia (Public Domain)

I crouch and hustle toward the banks of the River Styx, my drab, lifeless fingers wrapped around Innova’s wrist, almost charcoal against her gleaming skin. The waters ahead churn black and gray underneath a rolling mist. We’re almost to the ferry, hiding behind ramshackle houses, slipping through crowds of bodies wandering aimless near the docks like the wreckage of the afterlife.

Innova digs her heels into the dirt and pulls me back. “Dom, this is insane.” She gestures at the small black box strapped around her radiant ankle. “You should just take me back to the bar before the Oni gets suspicious. Calm, rational responses aren’t his style.”

I ain’t rational either, not when it comes to her. She doesn’t understand the lengths I’ll go to, the madness and hope her presence inspires within me. I’ve been Soulless for years, ever since I pulled the trigger on all my pain and suffering. I’d hoped to end it, and got an eternity’s worth instead. And after years on the outskirts of the underworld, this spirit of creativity clinging to my arm is the only thing that matters to me.

“I still have more time with you,” I protest. “He gave me his word. And if you can’t believe the giant ogre-demon Overlord who runs half of Death’s Landing, then who in Hell can you trust? Other than me, of course,” I add with a laugh.

Innova scoffs, but follows toward the ferry. Fact is, I need her to trust me on this one, maybe more than ever. I’ve been working this plan for a while and can’t have it fall apart at the last step.

 The Ferryman stands at the stern of his vessel, watching each tank of bootleg spirits his dockhands unload to their storage facility. “Move faster,” he growls. “I got another shipment to fetch from the other side.”

I can hear a crowd of voices on the other side of the building, the eager buyers who ditched the Oni and his expensive bar to come get a cheaper fix. The Ferryman is building some powerful demand from his customers, judging by the ruckus on the streets nearby. Makes me wonder what he’s getting out of the bargain. The Oni deals in secrets… what does the Ferryman collect?

Questions for another day. We’re a short dash from the mooring, and the dockhands are hauling off the last of the tanks. The Ferryman is already pushing away from the dock. It’s now or never.

 I feel Innova pulling away, resisting, quivering with fear now that we’re in sight of the ferry. “Trust me, babe,” I whisper. Then I dash for the boat, and thankfully she comes along, her fingers digging into my unfeeling skin.

 The dockhands watch in surprise, and the tanks of spirit they’re carrying fall forgotten in the dirt. The Ferryman’s face twists in confusion at the sight of this blazing bright woman and the bedraggled scrub of a Soulless running toward him.

 We hit the edge of the dock and leap, hanging over the black waters of the Styx for a second before crashing onto the planks of the ferry in a tumble.

 A voice roars loud enough to shake my heart inside chest. “What is the meaning of this?!” I look up at the Ferryman, but he’s glaring at someone on the docks. Behind me, Innova groans.

 At the edge of the dock, surrounded by a team of hovering demon-spawn, the Oni stands armored and armed for battle, his fists on the massive plates of obsidian at his hips. His mask is a glowing crimson like lava. His horns are tipped in blood. The long sword he holds in one hand looks like a massive sheet of razor-sharp metal with a handle tossed onto one end for convenience.

 His mask moves slightly, his gaze taking in the whole scene. When he speaks, the dock rumbles beneath his weight. “A fool hoping to steal one of my precious guests? And perhaps worse—a greater fool cutting into my market with cheap imitations of my product?”

 The Oni points, and four winged demons swoop toward the ferry to pull it back to the dock. The Ferryman whistles and a dozen of his burly assistants pour out of the storage facility in seconds, fists clenched, ready for a scrap.

 “Dom,” Innova breathes, “what have you done?”

 The Oni stomps a hoof onto the ferry and for a moment I fear the whole thing will capsize. His entourage of demons engage the dockhands trying to reach their master, and the shoreline turns into a madcap fight scene from some eighties action movie.

 “I’m not trying to escape with Innova,” I say.

 “Of course you are not,” the Oni replies, the empty eyes of his mask fixed on the Ferryman. “You are a thoughtful man, Dominick. A calculating man who knows the cost would be more than he could pay.”

“Just figured you’d be interested in what’s going on here.”

The Oni takes a step toward his rival. His fingers tighten around the haft of his ridiculous sword—a wall of metal bigger than my entire body. “You are correct,” he says, fearless, like a master looming over his cowering dog.

 The Ferryman’s eyes dart along the docks and the shore. His men put up a good fight, but the demons are driving them back, separating the dockhands from their leader. He throws up his hands in desperation before the Oni. “You can’t kill me! I keep the Underworld full of fresh souls, customers you need. If I stop bearing the departed from the world above, the whole circle of death and life breaks down.”

 “You speak truth,” the Oni admits. “I cannot kill you. However…”

 There’s a rush of wind as the Oni unleashes an overhead chop. The Ferryman screams and his left arm hits the deck with a thud.

 “You can still pilot your vessel with one hand.” The Oni leans in close. “I’m quite certain you could do it without legs if need be.” His expressionless mask examines the ship. “The soul-traps on this vessel… you will disassemble them, yes?”

 The Ferryman whimpers and gives a vigorous nod.

 Then the Oni turns to Innova and me, standing at the stern, near the rudder and the wheel. “You had a hand in arranging this meeting, Dominick. Did you seek reward? Are you currying favor, perhaps asking for another day with my lovely spirit by your side?”

 Now we come to it, the moment I’m expecting and dreading and hoping for all at once. I lick my lips, eyeing that insane, bloody thing in the Oni’s massive hand. “How about—how ‘bout you set her free?”

 The Oni stares in silence.

 “Otherwise,” I continue, forcing some resolve into my voice until it booms over the waters, “Otherwise, I flip this on and you all get sucked into the soul traps like a Hoover.” I tip my chin toward my hand, resting on the switch that powers the vessel’s mechanisms.

 I swear, even the dockhands and demons on the shore go silent. Rule number one of the outskirts: you don’t threaten the Oni.

Innova whips her head around at me, her jaw hanging like a fish plucked from the water. Even now she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.

 I take my eyes off her and find the Oni inches from my face, his blood-mask staring down at me, a fire smoldering in the black pits of his eye holes. “You dare not risk your beloved.”

 He’s smart, calling my bluff. I don’t have an answer for that.

 “I’d rather die,” Innova declares, “than be trapped on your shelf, brought out to prance before the refuse that frequents your bar, hoping to someday earn the right of basic freedom.”

 I take her hand and give it a squeeze. I wasn’t sure how to get around the obvious fact that I would never put her into harm’s way.

 The Oni grunts in frustration. His fingers flex and splay around the haft of his wall-sword. “You would be trapped too.”

 “I’m Soulless,” I reply. “I’ve got nothing to trap, nothing to lose.”

 Our standoff lasts several minutes, and then the Oni laughs. “Well played. Bribing me with my own soul. Truly a calculating man.” He turns to Innova and etches two glyphs of flame in the air. “Your contract is revoked. You are free to go.”

 Innova gasps, stumbling like a drunk. Her natural radiance gleams even more, like the sun finally peeking through a cloudy sky. “You—what?”

 “You are freed, spirit. No longer bound.” His voice hardens into a primal growl. “Nor do you belong here any longer.”

 

She flashes me a smile of thanks before he banishes her from the Underworld. There’s a flash of light, then—nothing. An empty spot where she stood, a hole in my heart that only she filled.

I look up at the gloomy skies and the thick stalactites high above, imagining that somewhere, beyond the miles of rock and lava, she’s feeling the sun on her face once again. It’s the only thing keeping me standing under the crushing weight of grief and loss.

“I respect what you have done here, Dominick,” the Oni says. “But you are wrong.”

“About what?” I stand at the stern, staring into the darkness above.

“Having nothing to lose,” the Oni says. He marches off the ferry, each step rocking the shuddering vessel.