Tag Archives: fantasy

Cooperative Storytelling

Cooperative Storytelling

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about tabletop role-playing, but it’s the first Tabletop Tuesday post. I hope to funnel all the related topics into this weekly category: reviews of various products, ideas for how to add to your game on the cheap, thoughts about how to run a group, or accounts of silly thing my players have done in game.

Now with 100% less capes!
Write your own story, with friends

Yet for many, the idea of tabletop role-playing is quite a mystery. Some of us have probably heard a lot about the evils of games like Dungeons and Dragons, and perhaps we’ve seen groups of young (or not so young) people dressing up and playing live action games in local parks. Even my wife was worried before her first time playing a tabletop RPG.

“I don’t have to wear a cape, do I?”

The extent of role-playing is defined by the group. No one has to quote Harry Potter terms or wave a stick around yelling “You shall not pass!” If the players are open to that, more power to them. But that’s not what the games are about.

Tabletop games are all about a group of people telling a story together.

It’s not much different from the lure of major sports. We watch men and women perform challenging but ultimately useless feats of athletic skill, and we get drawn into all the rivalries and back-story of our favorite teams and superstars. No one really cares if a guy can put a ball into a hoop suspended up in the air, or if someone can hit a little white ball with a stick.

No, we get into the stories.

Will so-and-so ever lead his team to victory? Maybe this is his year to shine. Can that player overcome his public indiscretions, or will his performance on the field suffer? Will Team A triumph over Team B this year, since Team B crushed them in the finals last season?

We even go so far as to imagine “what if” with sports. What if this great player from this team and that great player from that team were actually on the same team? What if I took these five players I really like, and put them on the same team? How would they compare against other people’s choices? And thus we have Fantasy sports, so-called D&D for Jocks.

We are drawn to the characters, the conflicts, the victories and the failures. That’s ultimately what tabletop RPGs are about. You’re not merely reading a book or watching a movie, waiting for the next twist, wondering when the mystery will be explained or the hidden villain revealed. You’re not trying to comprehend and relate to whatever main character you’ve been given.

You’re helping write the plotline for a character of your choosing.

Beyond that, tabletop gaming is a social activity with friends gathering (usually) in the same place. It’s a creative activity, allowing players the chance to think outside their daily norm and even act a part. It’s a strategic activity, with rules and tactics that players can use to their advantage, like a chess game with dice. When it works out, tabletop gaming can be a great diversion, just like any hobby.

And, no, you don’t have to wear a cape.

Walking Death: Ch. 1

As promised, here’s the first story excerpt. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Walking Death, Chapter 1

The year the Empire fell began like any other in recent memory: celebration.

The Assassin knew the night would end with blood.

She crouched at the edge of the cliff overlooking the city of Veneshal. Black strands of hair brushed her tanned cheek, and she swept them away, eyes fixed on her goal far below. She peered into the distant shadows and dove.

Her grey cloak whipped behind her as she plummeted three hundred feet toward the highest tower of the magnificent building below. A cloud of black dust burst around her, and she froze in the air a hand’s length above the stone. Her foot touched down with serene poise.

The Assassin observed the rooftop below. She stood invisible in the night, hooded and covered in loose grey fabric, hidden from the city lights. Glimmering rings sat on pedestals around the manors of nobility. They twinkled in the night like stars fallen to the earth.

   Refocused magic. Arcanists are present.

The contract required a public killing, so the Assassin expected confrontation with a magic-user. She felt neither fear nor excitement at the challenge. She merely noted the complication and planned her reactions.

Throughout Veneshal, ornate paper lanterns hung above commoners’ doorframes in such great numbers that the few clouds and the rippling bay around the port city glowed like amber.  Music and the clamor of the New Year’s celebration rose to the assassin’s ears.

But no celebration echoed as loud nor building shone as bright as that on which the Assassin now stood. The Baricund dominated Veneshal’s skyline, both a fortress and the grand mansion of the Condral family, nobles with blood ties to the Emperor himself. Tarrandin Condral oversaw all trade that came through the docks, so he possessed enough wealth for frivolity. He held feasts and diversions year-round. Tonight’s celebration surpassed them all. Based on the plan the Assassin had been given, several thousand favored attendees would be inside the Baricund. The crowd outside doubled that number.

   Irrelevant to the mission. The ground exits are a worst-case option. Not even a team of Arcanists can keep up with me once I get outside.

There were fifteen guards in the courtyard below, sweating in shining plate armor. The unlucky few assigned to crowd control. Probably another score of guards within.

No one watched the rooftop.  The cliff face jutted out high above the Baricund.  Rappelling down was impossible.

   Then again, no one has seen powers like mine.

She gazed down at the stone roof and pictured the floor plans she memorized.  Tarrandin would have withdrawn to the private ballroom by now, surrounded by four hundred chosen guests.  His top lackeys and businessmen, most likely. Anyone connected to Hazfis Ral.

Ral’s criminal ties spread throughout every major city and town across the Empire. On receiving her mission, the Assassin wondered whether the enigmatic figure that indirectly purchased her services was Ral himself.  Counting Tarrandin Condral, four of her last seven targets worked in Ral’s network.  He’s cleaning house, or someone is sending him a message.

But the Assassin was not concerned about Hazfis Ral.  The man with the money does not matter. I have a contract; I will fulfill it.

She picked one stone on the rooftop and reached out in her mind.  Shadows stretched and oozed like spilled ink running across a sheet of paper. At her command, the darkness gathered in a slow swirl around her chosen stone until she could not see it. A whip-crack broke the silence as the stone shattered. The pool of shadow exerted tremendous force on the adjacent stones. Jagged lines spider-webbed out from the edges.

The hidden figure sprang from her perch, extending her hands toward the roof below.  Lines of fine black dust appeared in the air between her and the mass of darkness.  The ceiling crumbled. Stones plummeted and smashed the ballroom’s hardwood floor. The Assassin slipped through the new-formed hole, followed by the swirling plume of dark flecks left behind as the pool dissipated.

Partygoers froze. The orchestra stopped. All eyes turned toward the ceiling.

As the Assassin fell, she Stretched a new jet of shadow downward, pushing away from the ground to soften the impact. At the same time, she Pooled again, pulling a mixture of darkness and rubble into a funnel around herself.

When her foot touched the ballroom floor, she released all that she gathered. Broken rock sprayed out from the swirling cloud in every direction. Fabric and flesh tore with equal ease throughout the room as the Assassin Scattered all she had Pooled.

Screams echoed in the chamber. Men and women scrambled over each other in a dash to the exit. The Assassin scanned the crowd for anyone pushing against the human tide. Tarrandin’s bodyguards fought the panic and frenzy of the crowd, jostling their way through the rush of bodies. They wore no armor to speak of; they were still guests at a banquet and so were dressed in formal attire. Three wore eyeglasses. Three Arcanists. Manageable.

Pureblood human Arcanists used eyepieces called Oculars in order to manipulate magic. The potential energy of inanimate objects could be bound by the eyepiece, Refocused into a new form, then loosed in combat against a foe. Arcanists were the most destructive force in the Empire’s employ, but the Assassin felt no fear or worry. One at forward-left. One at forward-right. One at right flank… and weapons all around.

The Assassin’s powers could not touch an Ocular. She did not fully understand why. But the people wearing the devices were just flesh and blood. Jets of shadow dust reached out past the approaching bodyguards and Arcanists to yank several chunks of fallen rock toward the Assassin–through her foes.  Bloodstained stones thudded on the ground at her feet, followed by eight bodies. Two wore Oculars.

This was the opposite of Stretching, an ability she called Flexing. She could use the shadow to pull at an object. A large object could serve as an anchor for the Assassin to propel herself through the air. A small object could be Flexed or Stretched at high velocity as a projectile weapon.

The third Arcanist still stood unharmed. The stones she flung toward him splashed to the ground, Refocused into muddy water.

Six guards rushed her. Arcanist first.

She drew two long curved knives and leapt into the fray. The Assassin spun, parried, dodged, and slashed at the guards, but always her eyes remained fixed on the man with the Ocular. Her blades became a blur, her cloak a swirling shadow.

   They can only Refocus what they can see. Be faster than sight.

The ground under her softened like quicksand. Not fast enough! The Assassin Flexed at a nearby guard, pulling herself into the air and shoving him down into the puddle of liquid stone before it solidified around him. She landed with a slash across another guard’s arm, and he dropped his sword. This she Stretched toward the Arcanist, but the blade shimmered into droplets of metal. They sprayed past him and splattered across the wall.

She felt no frustration at this failed attack. The distraction served its purpose.

With a flick of her wrists, two silvery spikes flew toward the Arcanist. He swept at them with his arm, but they flew straight and remained intact. His eyes widened. Yes, they’re warpsilver too. You’re not the only one with fun toys.

The Arcanist fell to his knees, clutching at his eyes. A fist-sized stone on a stream of shadow dust punched into his chest and slid him across the floor.

The Assassin recovered the precious spikes, then turned her attention to the remaining guards. She Pooled shadow around herself. The guards grimaced, muscles straining against the sudden weight. None of them fled from her, a credit to their bravery.

   They should have.

The first two bodyguards reached out to capture her. To the assassin’s eyes, they looked like tired men slogging through a swamp. Their fingertips reached for her, and she exploded in motion. She punched out with both fists, knocking the breath from their lungs and bending them over. Then she sprung onto their shoulders, pushing them downward while jumping over their falling bodies to snap a sharp kick into the throat of a third guard.

In the midst of the chaos, one of her enemies raised a monocle to his eye. The Assassin smiled. You were wise to keep your power hidden until now.

Her foot brushed the ground and her leg spun around to sweep the third guard into the air. Then she Stretched, launching him at the new Arcanist. Thought so… you can dissipate a rock or blade, but you won’t risk hurting your ally. The Arcanist hesitated, and the guard crashed into him. Both went down in a heap of limbs.

Two bodyguards lunged toward the crouching Assassin, and she Stretched against the ground. The floor could not be moved, so the Stretch tossed the Assassin into the air between the guards. Her knives flashed, slicing into their necks. Then she Scattered, sending them away with a wave of force and black specks.

The Arcanist regained his footing, about to unleash the Refocused fireball in his hand. The Assassin threw her knives, speeding them along with a Stretch. He quickly shifted elements from fire to air, pushing the knives off course with a howling wind. The blades flew wide, curving behind the Arcanist. Then the Assassin Flexed, yanking them back point-first.

The wind stopped as the man fell. Bloodstains formed in his chest where the knives nearly pierced clean through.

The last bodyguard had the good sense to run. The Assassin gave no chase. Witnesses are part of the plan.

A third of the guests remained, eyes fixed on the action. In the center of the ballroom, the Assassin was alone with Tarrandin. He slouched at the table with heavy-lidded red eyes. The empty glass on its side clearly was not his first. This will be over soon.

The Assassin stepped forward, drawing two more knives.

Then Tarrandin grinned. Slurring in an alien language, he lifted a steak knife from the table and sliced his palm. He painted a small symbol on his forehead with the blood.

   So the rumors were true. He was a Kem’neth, a human filled with demonic power. She recognized the symbol. The sign of Deceit.

She paused in her approach. Ninety percent reduction in likelihood of success. She felt no sense of defeat, no fear of failure, and no exhilaration at the surprising challenge she now faced. Only an observation that she could very well die.

She brandished the knives and lunged.

Bordermarches: Curses

I’ve introduced many of the features of the Bordermarches so far: magic, science, the Divine, and Gracemarks.

Now I’d like to present the opposition to the Divine.

Though I do enjoy good vs. good storylines, I also have a place in my heart for the “simple” clear-cut good vs. evil conflict.

Given my intent to take advantage of biblical themes and perspective, my evil is a lot like Tolkien. It doesn’t create anything new. It corrupts that which was originally made pure.

There are seven Daemons working against the purposes of the Divine in this fantasy setting.

In response to Light and Truth, there is Deceit.

To oppose Strength and Passion, there is Rage.

Nature and Growth are countered by Corruption.

Justice and Order are pitted against Chaos.

The rival of Knowledge and Creativity is Ignorance.

Love and Beauty struggle against Hatred.

The foe of Eternity and Life is Destruction.

My good buddies Merriam and Webster tell me that “Daemon” probably comes from a Greek root that means “to distribute.” The term implies oversight of a thing. These seven Daemons are no different, distributing a Curse similar to the Gracemarks of the Divine.

Serving darkness is not without benefits…

There are key differences. While a Gracemark is under the control of the bearer, the Curse, or Kem, can take control of its host. When this happens, the bearer is more like a husk or shell, a puppet on strings pulled by the influence of the Daemon. Once under the sway of the Curse, the bearer’s true form is revealed, that of a massive horned demon twice the size of the average man.

How YOU doin'?
Kem’neth should look like this, even if it’s blatant stealing from Legend… because Tim Curry is amazing.

Gracemarks are given either as a divine favor or as a symbol of acceptance from a religious order, and they are not transferable. Curses, however, can be granted as a gift of power to a servant of evil, or they can be transferred to an individual who kills a Cursebearer. The person who slays a Kem’neth (or Cursebearer) is usually given the option soon afterwards to accept or reject the Curse. Some people are exempt from the offer: Devoted of the Light and Soulforged of Justice are two examples.

Gracemarks generally give two or four powers associated with their Aspect of the Divine. Cursebearers receive all seven powers, one related to each Daemon, although they each have one strongest power.

No one man should have all that power…

Deceit inspires followers to buy in to the Cursebearer’s lies. But more than that, Deceit allows the Cursebearer to appear to be in two places at once during combat, projecting false images into the minds of enemies.

Rage incites bloodlust and murderous intent in the hearts of others. It also grants the Cursebearer terrible strength.

Corruption warps the hearts of others to serve the Cursebearer’s purposes. It can also twist creation to serve the Cursebearer’s needs, turning Nature against the Cursebearer’s enemies.

Chaos allows the Cursebearer to release bolts of uncontrolled energy. In pseudo-science terms, the Cursebearer tweaks physics on a quantum scale.

Ignorance keeps minions in check and muddles the minds of enemies.

Hatred permits the Cursebearer to detect and track particular enemies over long distances.

Destruction allows the Cursebearer to draw on non-sentient life nearby in order to regain energy or empower magic.

Everything floats down here!
Kem’neth should also sound like Pennywise… because Tim Curry.

There’s only one way to kill a Kem’neth…

The one other advantage of the Kem is a limited immortality. Having given themselves completely over to the service of the Daemons, the Cursebearers are only vulnerable in their hearts. Even if decapitated or torn in half, a Cursebearer will eventually regenerate; the heart must be destroyed in order to put the Cursebearer to death.

Kem’neth can come in both genders and all races, but humans are the predominant race.

That statement doesn’t mean much unless I introduce the various races in the Bordermarches, so I had better do that next.

Kung Fu Hobbit

Real life has been hectic and complicated, forcing me to adjust priorities and pay time and attention to some important things…

…Like family game night!

(Not really, but we did make time Monday night to get our game on for a bit.)

A couple weeks ago, my wife and I discussed her character. Jami likes the idea of Bethrynivere the military leader, but the character bores her. Likewise, Deborah loves Beastly Tiger, the dim-witted wall of muscle. But she doesn’t care so much about the panther companion that comes with a beastmaster ranger.

He’s crying because Beastly Tiger doesn’t want him tagging along anymore.

We looked into some other options while leveling up the kids’ characters.

Deborah selected a marauder ranger, which basically means combining various actions in order to capture a sense of “You’re the fastest character out there, rushing around the battlefield, charging into your enemies.” She plays to Beastly Tiger’s strengths (namely, his Strength stat) by chucking throwing hammers and then running up to smash faces with her larger war hammer.

We finished the character, and I couldn’t help but hear, “Stop! Hammer time!”

Meanwhile, Jami is trying to choose a class and race for a new character. She doesn’t want to duplicate any of the roles in the party, so a magic user is out. A rogue is out. A burly up-close fighter is out, because that’s basically what Beastly Tiger is no matter what the class says. On top of that, the party has no healer. Jami is convinced she should make a healer just because they need one, but that’s not what she wants to do.

I assure her not to worry about healing. I have a plan for an NPC of sorts, an angelic being that grants healing to the characters (in a limited fashion) when they get their butts handed to them in combat.

I don’t know how exactly I’d explain its presence yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something! I just don’t want Jami feeling forced to play something she’s not interested in. So she ignores the healing classes and looks at a few options.

And maybe it was excitement about the upcoming Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria… or maybe it was inspiration from Gollum’s total rage assault on Frodo at the end of Return of the King… or maybe none of the above. But Jami settled on the idea of a Monk, and she decided her monk had to be a Halfling.

Yeah. You heard of Frodo, now meet his cousin Judo.

One does not simply walk into Mordor…
But you can Soaring Crane Kick your way in.

I kid, I kid. The monk’s name is Lily-Ann. The heroes met her in a session a while back where they fought that Dire Bear.

Once the bear was vanquished, the team gathered all available clues and figured that the thieving merchant they needed to find was probably holed up in the abandoned cathedral near the town. They set off to chase him down, and encountered an assassin who also sought him for reasons known only to her.

There was a brief tense moment–Beastly Tiger threatened to eat the assassin for dinner, and she responded coolly, “I think you’ll find my meat too tough for your tastes.” (I was proud of my off-the-cuff cheesy retort!)

Then the heroes realized the assassin shared the same short-term goal–stop the merchant, recover the gem–so they agreed to work together. They stepped into the cathedral and found the merchant holding the gemstone, protected by a large bubble of energy. Goblins surrounded the bubble, clawing and scraping to no effect. The merchant raised the gem, revealed his true demonic form, and exerted control over the goblins, turning them against the heroes.

That’s where we left off about two weeks ago.

While plotting the big fight, I thought about incorporating vampires into the plot line. I liked the idea of this merchant-devil guy gaining power from the blood that is drawn on the pre-made map. (Eevil Paizo, including little hooks and plot ideas in your simple map drawing!) But then he’d have to be a merchant-devil-vampire guy.

Devil vampires? Yessss… 

Come to think of it, I had a campaign that was headed toward an arc about toppling a vampire clan. We had to stop due to various military deployments and such, and we never got to realize that portion of the story. Maybe these devil vampires could be a similar arc for family game night.

And the need to stop their evil would certainly explain the angelic being’s presence and interest in the heroes. Bonus!

So, with all this in mind, I set up the fight. I throw in a heap of goblin minions. In game terms, they’re the cannon fodder, the scrawny little losers that die as soon as they take damage. Minions give the players a sense that their characters are really powerful heroes, crushing all opposition.

They serve my purpose as well; the devil vampire has a healing buff that grows with the blood of each goblin slain.

On top of that, Lily-Ann and the assassin NPC both take bleed damage early in the fight. Bleeding sounds like something else that might give the devil vampire strength, so I describe the power he gains. Now they really want him to die.

Of course, with all the bleeding, they need a healer. So I tell them there is a flash of radiance at the back of the sanctuary, and an angelic being appears, hovering above the ground. She starts shooting beams of warm light at the heroes, and their wounds are healed. They want to know what her deal is, why she’s there, but they’re content to let that wait until after the fight.

The heroes smash their way through many goblins, while the assassin tries to distract the devilish merchant. The kids and Jami focus exclusively on the goblins, but the devil vampire remains completely protected behind a powerful shield. I set about 13 black token stones in an arc inside the cathedral, marking the boundary of the shield.

Deborah describes the various ways she wants Beastly Tiger to attack goblins… usually something like playing Leap Frog over a friend and then landing a crushing shot with the hammer. At some point, Jonathan decides that his not-sneaky-at-all Dragonborn Wizard is going to try to slip around the goblins by creeping through the shadows behind the pillars of the cathedral sanctuary. I can’t believe he wants to do this, but that’s the beauty of the game.

They can do whatever they want, or at least try.

As the kids and Jami beat up the goblins, Justin misses his attack by a very narrow margin. I describe how his crossbow bolt flies through a goblin wizard’s robe instead of hitting the goblin. And I think, “Well, if it flies through his robe, it’ll hit whatever is behind it… namely the shield.”

I describe the impact on the shield, and I replace a black token with a red one. This piques Jonathan’s interest.

On his next turn, he abandons his sneaking plan and decides to start attacking the shield directly. I end up replacing another token or two with red, and I explain how the shield flickers or wavers with each hit.

Suddenly no one cares about the goblins.

Like, not at all.

All of them are focused on the shield, to the extent that they’re ignoring the attacks of little goblins standing right next to them.

Justin has Clayface firing one crossbow bolt after another into the shield, trying to bring it down. The heroes are close to breaking through. One of the little pesky goblins runs up to harass or attack Clayface, and rolls a 1. I pick a card from the Critical Fumble deck.

The goblin ends up with something like, “Return to Sender.” It means the attack failed so bad that the opponent grabs and keeps the weapon the attacker just used. The goblin essentially runs up and hands Clayface his knife in the middle of the fight, while Clayface remains focused on the shield.

Can't Touch This
This is essentially what I picture and describe Clayface doing… no look, no distraction, just reaching up and blocking, grabbing the knife out of the goblin’s hand.    (I also need to watch The Matrix again sometime soon.)

The goblins didn’t last long. And once the shield was brought down, the heroes were quick to pile on the devil vampire. Jami’s monk has a powerful move she can do once per fight, called Open the Gates of Battle. It does extra damage when you attack a target that has full health. Throughout the fight, we were discussing when she could or should use “Open the Gates.” She really really wanted to use it on the big devil vampire, and the moment finally arrived.

She says, “I wanna OPEN THE GATES!” Deborah and Jonathan cheer with her, “Yeah! Open the Gates! Open the Gates!”

Justin yells, “AND THEN CLOSE IT ON HIM!”

The heroes surround the devil vampire and beat on him with everything they’ve got. My assassin NPC manages to snatch the gemstone from the monster’s hands, and jumps away. (I’ve been trying to get her to grab it the whole time, but unfortunately I’ve been rolling a string of 3s and 4s.)

He responds by spraying acid and bile all around him a la Exorcist, pushing the heroes back. Then he rushes at the assassin and tries to get the gemstone back.

With everyone unloading their best attacks, the devil vampire is in a bad way. I get my turn, and he takes the gemstone back, raising it up into the air triumphantly, calling on its power to aid him and cackling in a mustache-twirling villain sort of way.

Justin declares, “I want to shoot him IN THE FACE!” and attacks with a crossbow shot that I know will kill the vampire. And it’s really late at this point, and we need to finish.

Always finish with a hook, if you can get away with it.

The devil vampire’s grin turns to open-mouthed confusion and he looks from the gem to the assassin at his feet. Something has gone wrong. “NOOOOO!” He screams at her. “WHAT HAVE YOU DO–”

I tell Jami and the kids, “The crossbow bolt flies into the creature’s mouth, killing him and triggering the explosive power of Clayface’s weapon. The devil vampire explodes, sending the assassin sliding across the ground. The goblins under the vampire’s control fall dead. Aaaaaand… we’re done. Time to get ready for bed.”

Deborah and Jonathan shout, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

I smile.

And the next day, Jonathan is already asking, “Can we play more tonight?”

They can’t wait to see what happens. Thinking of the silliness they come up with, I can’t wait to see what happens either.

Bordermarches: Gracemarks

You can’t go around hoping that most people have sterling moral characters. The most you can hope for is that people will pretend that they do. – Fran Lebowitz

We all know the logic of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Our initial impressions of a thing may be way off once we look closer. That’s never more true than when dealing with the complexities of people.

But what if you could tell a person’s character at a glance?

What if you could know with near certainty?

That’s the idea that sparked my plan for how the Divine interacts with the populace of the Bordermarches.

This is the fifth in a series about the fantasy setting of the book I am writing. So far, I’ve introduced the world in general, the views of its people about science, the way magic works, and the various Aspects of the Divine.

Story is about people, not the pantheon of gods.

To be fair, stories about the gods, like Greek mythology, are more about exaggerations of people than about the Divine. The gods are like us writ larger than life, and their squabbles mirror those common to humanity. (My atheist friends would gently remind me that they see this as true about all faith.)

Even without a pantheon, even in a setting with only one God (or none at all), there are certain values or ideals that receive greater attention from one person than another. Where those values differ, there is room for conflict and story between characters.

Still, explaining the Divine in the Bordermarches serves to better explain how characters are empowered by their faith. Divine power is a common element of fantasy, just like magic. And just like my thoughts about a magic system, I do not want a Divine power system that boils down to “I can do these things because miracles!”

In my post on magic, I referred to Brandon Sanderson’s thoughts on explaining magic systems in a story. Here’s the link to the First Law, which I find very useful.

My thought process is this: If magic and Divine empowerment are commonplace experiences in this world and have been for all of recorded history, there has to be some knowledge in place about it. People would develop common terms for important parts of the system.

There may still be some mysteries, but there’s a generally understood “way things work.”

For the power of the Divine in the Bordermarches, that “way” is called the Gracemark.

The Gracemark is a symbol on the back of the individual’s dominant hand that normally looks like a tattoo about the size of an apple. There are seven marks, one for each pair of Aspects of the Divine. Individuals usually only have one mark, based on their primary passion or desire.

This mark glows electric blue when the power granted by the Aspect of the Divine is in use.

There are two types of Gracemarks, depending on the source:

1. Gracebrands are granted by the appropriate religious order upon a successful selection process. The nominee is examined and questioned and approved (or not) based on their known character and their perceived merit. The religious orders have devices that can track or sense the use of Divine power through a Gracebrand. This gives them some oversight of those individuals who do good or evil in the name of an Aspect.

At any given time, about forty percent of the populace of the Bordermarches has a Gracebrand.

2. Gracemarks appear spontaneously on approximately ten percent of the population. There is no definite trigger, but Gracemarked individuals in every case show an unwavering passion and zeal for something related to the Aspect whose mark they receive. Usually these individuals have been overlooked or rejected by the religious order’s selection process. The methods the orders employ to track and sense Gracebrands do not work on Gracemarks.

The commonly accepted explanation (of course unproven) is that Gracemarks come directly from the Aspects of the Divine.

The big question is, what do these Gracemarks actually do?

I borrowed from the words of Jesus, when asked “what is the greatest commandment?” His answer is that the first great commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Gracemark powers fit into one of those four categories.

Heart: This usage is called a Pulse. It releases Divine power externally, inspiring or strengthening a target other than the Gracemarked individual. Perhaps it might promote loyalty (Love/Beauty), or cure a person suffering from poison or disease (Nature/Growth). It can inspire others toward purity (Light/Truth) or against evil (Justice/Order). It can even heal (Eternity/Life).

Soul: This usage is called a Glimpse. The soul is the seat of emotion and will, and Glimpsing provides the Gracemarked individual with an emotional internal sense about a given thing. This is more an impression than an analysis of data. For example, one could sense the resolve or unwavering nature of another (Strength/Passion), or get an overall impression of another’s moral purity (Light/Truth). A Gracemarked person might have a sudden revelation about what is taking place in another person or in the world around them (Knowledge/Creativity). They may get a generalized idea of the past or future state of a thing (Eternity/Life). In every case, it is a non-empirical and vague intuition based on the particular Aspect for which the individual is marked.

Mind: This usage is called a Gaze. It is another internal revelation power. But the difference between this and a Glimpse is that the information provided by a Gaze is like empirical data to be analyzed. This enables special tracking skill, as the Gracemarked individual sees evidence of their quarry’s passing (Nature/Growth). It can enable an internal “compass” that points to someone the Gracemarked individual is bound to (Love/Beauty), like a spouse and children, or perhaps subordinates in a military unit.  This enables detection of evil (Justice/Order), or simply detection of life (Eternity/Life). It also enables a Divine sort of lie detector test (Light/Truth). It may even be used to get clairvoyance or prophecy (Knowledge/Creativity).

Strength: This usage is called a Strain. In almost all cases, it is an internal boost, an imbuement of Divine power that strengthens the Gracemarked individual. The Gracemarked person may exhibit superhuman strength (Strength/Passion), which is no surprise. They may heal themselves by setting their bodies and wounds back to the way they should be (Justice/Order). They may receive special knowledge about how to do a particular thing they’ve never been trained for (Knowledge/Creativity). They can seem to slow time by dramatically increasing their reaction and movement speed for a brief period (Eternity/Life).

The exception to the internal rule is the Gracemark of Light/Truth, which enables single-target healing. These individuals use their strength of devotion to Strain on behalf of another in need.

Each Gracebrand has two powers associated with it, depending on the particular Aspect. Those with Light/Truth can Gaze as lie detectors and can Strain to heal others. Those with Nature/Growth can Gaze to track a target and Pulse to cure poison or disease.

Gracemarks enjoy access to all four types of powers associated with their particular Aspect. This, coupled with the fact that they cannot be tracked by and do not conform to the religious orders, makes their bearers persons of interest among the political and religious elite. Having a Gracemark in the Bordermarches means having a target on your head.

When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus surprised His questioners by providing two. He followed the first by saying, “And the second is like it:”

Love your neighbor as yourself.

What happens if a Gracemarked individual violates their personal morality or their religious order’s commands?

Is a Gracebrand or Gracemark license to do whatever you want with Divine power?

Gracebrands can be deactivated by the religious order. The specifics are not commonly known, but the religious orders police their own and punish those who violate the accepted teachings of their Aspect. The process leaves a scar in the place of the brand. This clearly identifies that the individual once held favor with the Divine or the religious orders but was stripped of their access to that power.

Gracemarks have at times been known to vanish as well. However, the religious orders do not have control over these marks, and the individuals who bear them are usually unwavering in their commitment to the ideals represented by their Aspect.

If a Gracemark vanishes, it leaves a scar just like a Gracebrand.

That captures most of the details of how the power of the Aspects of the Divine fits into the Bordermarches.

Of course, what would a fantasy setting be without evil? And what self-respecting evil power would not corrupt the good into their own twisted service? Next, I’ll cover the seven Daemons and the empowering Curses they bestow on those who follow their ways.

Bordermarches: The Divine

You may never fully understand the Indescribable. You must still make the attempt.

Welcome back to the Bordermarches series.

As I considered what sort of fantasy world I want to write in, I knew that there would be some religious aspect to it. For one, clerics and paladins and such are a staple of the D&D concept that inspired the original story. Second, my faith is going to affect what and how I write, whether I want it to or not.

Sorry, no talking lions.

However, not everyone is particularly religious, and I don’t want to write a sermon. I don’t even want to write an allegory along the lines of The Chronicles of Narnia. There won’t be any Christ-figure lions. I’d rather aim for something like The Lord of the Rings, with virtues and morals sprinkled here and there to flavor the setting and the story.

I want something that welcomes skeptics and believers of all stripes.

Back when I started devising a campaign, I shared all kinds of details with my wife. (Ok, I still share all kinds of details with my wife, who patiently tries to sort out which version of which story I’m talking about this time.)

Not you guys either.
Well… not exactly.

I was reading the 4th Edition D&D books, which presents a pantheon of gods and goddesses similar to Greek mythology. Some are good, some are evil, some are neither, and have their own interests to pursue. I shared how these gods related to my campaign with Jami.

You have to understand both of us have pretty conservative streaks. I grew up in a house where D&D was a tool of Satan to make kids ready for true witchcraft. Jami is a whole-hearted convert to Christianity, and so what she knew about D&D was pretty much what the church folk said, and most of them thought it was a tool of the devil too.

She was patient and listened to my explanations. “No, it’s not witchcraft. No, we won’t be casting spells or wearing cloaks or running around in the fields with axes. Sure, some people DO that, but it’s all about how you want to play the game. You’re just a group of people telling a story together.”

She went along with all of that… until it got to the idea of all these gods and goddesses out there. We discussed that issue, and I agreed to not have other ‘gods.’

My dilemma was this: the “pantheon” approach has a lot of possibilities for conflict that will be important to the story. I couldn’t just make all of the Bordermarches into a Christian nation under one God who looks a lot like God in the Bible.

I borrowed from Deism, declaring that “the Divine” doesn’t really interact directly with creation. In fact, the Divine is something totally holy, totally “other than us,” incomprehensible and vast beyond human reasoning. Really, that fits the Christian God as well… except we believe He chose to stoop down and interact with humanity on a level we can understand.

What if this Divine did not do that?

The facets bring out the beauty of the whole.

In this world, fourteen Aspects of the Divine carry out ‘the will of God.’ They each represent a part of the Divine, like pieces of a puzzle or the faces of a diamond. There are seven pairs of Aspects that work together:

Light and Truth

Strength and Passion

Nature and Growth

Justice and Order

Knowledge and Creativity

Love and Beauty

Eternity and Life

This provides some room for the “good vs. good” conflict that I find more compelling than simple “good vs. evil.” For example, a follower of Justice may want to see a criminal pay for their sins, where a follower of Light may see a chance for redemption and mercy. (Think of Jaubert, the consummate lawman, and Jean Valjean, the redeemed thief, in Les Miserables.)

D&D 4E suggested this sort of conflict as well. Perhaps the goddess of nature might be in conflict with the goddess of civilization and progress. Neither one is really “good” or “evil.” They just have goals that are in direct conflict.

The different Aspects also allow for a variety of motivations and levels of devotion. Followers of the Light and of Justice are more extreme cases, but for the most part, people are free to choose just how religious (or not) they really are.

Strength, for example, doesn’t require acts of worship or a personal piety. To excel at what you do is worship enough. This Aspect serves as a healthy guiding force for the competitive… and a refuge for those who only care about superiority.

Similarly, Nature will not require a grand cathedral and weekly church attendance. Those who find a mystery and serenity on a stroll through untouched woodlands will perfectly serve Nature, whether they intentionally and consciously “serve” or not.

Those seeking a life full of experiences and discoveries might follow Life or Creativity. A scientist can follow the path of Knowledge without feeling tension between religion and science. Following the path of Love can be just as much the wife longing for a husband as the military commander who inspires loyalty in her company.

All of the above could be examples of agnostics or atheists pursuing their own interests apart from faith.

This intro to the Divine (and specifically the Aspects of the Divine) helps provide some background, but the story cannot be about “the gods.”

Story is about people.

But people are sometimes driven to extremes by their faith. And in a fantasy setting, people are often supernaturally empowered and marked by their devotion. I’ll explore that next.

Bordermarches: Intro

“Your subjects despair at the chaos around them. Your nobles still look to the old lords who founded this land, and hope that the Cerunae might return to set it to order. They do not know what I have seen. The Empire you wait for, the glories of old you hope to see restored… Your fallen cities are all that remains of it.”

Welcome to the Bordermarches — the setting for the book(s) I am writing, as well as a number of tabletop RPG campaigns I’ve run.

First, some background:

In 2008, I deployed to the Mid-East for a few months. Just before I left, a friend suggested starting a tabletop RPG group at his house. While I was sitting around in “the desert” between flights, I was looking for something to do. Then the exchange set up a display stand for the core rulebooks of the newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons: the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I had some extra money and thought, “I’ll check this out.”

The core rulebooks inspired the original version of my setting. They describe a flawed and dangerous world, a place where civilization huddles in ‘points of light’ surrounded by darkness and the unknown. For the purpose of the rulebooks, the writers suggest the backdrop of a long-fallen empire, an ancient power that spanned the known world and left secrets behind in its ruin.

Naturally, this works great for a campaign.

What technology might the ancient empire have possessed? What’s left of that?

What power or magic did they know? Can it be learned today?

Who or what destroyed them? And is that destructive force still around?

Does it lie dormant, biding its time, its hunger growing as the day of its return approaches?

Or was it a tremendous global calamity, a meteor strike for example?

Has that devastation become a legend of gods casting fire to the earth in their wrath?

And perhaps it was an act of the Divine after all?

If so, what prompted it? Some rampant evil that now rises again and threatens a global judgment?

Needless to say, there are almost limitless options.

And that’s assuming you don’t decide the empire in question is actually still intact and in control.

Since it gives so many options, I ran with that general idea… a world in decline, a realm under siege on all sides, an unstable government struggling to stand while crippled by corruption within.

In the world of the Bordermarches, the Cerune Empire has fallen. Its Amethyral Throne has been bereft of a rightful Imperial for several hundred years. Wars and squabbling for power consumed most of the Empire’s greatness.

However, in the centuries prior to its decline, Cerune sought to expand its reach to other continents. A grand expedition carried the Emperor’s banner across the seas to found a seat of power on a new continent. Opportunity and hope brought great numbers to this new land, and the Cerunae spread until natural borders or strong resistance stopped them.

The Snowcap Mountains cross the north, separating this land from the tundra nation of Glacierift.  The jagged peaks of Tiernalen’s Wall form the eastern edge, and none return who venture into the forests on the other side. To the distant southeast, arid wastes and twisted magic prevent further expansion. The gloom of Feyshadow Fen marks the western border, between the Snowcaps and the bay where the Cerunae first landed.

This distant addition to the Empire marked the furthest edge of Cerune’s power, the borders of its reach. Four City-States took root across the expanse: Mirelenai, the crime-ridden port city where the Empire first landed; Lanaloth, the city of harvest that provides food for most of the realm; Aelwyn, known for the finest craftsmanship and most courageous warriors; and Aulivar, the greatest and highest of the Cities. Though each seeks its own interests, they are also bound by a mutual defense pact in case of a greater regional threat.

And such threats now arise against the Marches.

To the north, Glacierift has collapsed, descending into madness and violence. Its former soldiers and desperate refugees seek aid from Aulivar, and where they do not find it, they take what they need by force.

To the east, contact has been lost with many of the scattered mining villages that supply Aelwyn’s smithies. The few gibbering survivors speak of bloodthirsty savages. Tiernalen’s Wall has held back the remnants of the Cerunae from further expansion, but it does not prevent outsiders from pouring into the Marches.

To the southeast, the Army of the Marches stands watch over the border of the Wastes–a border that encroaches steadily on the green fields and farmlands of Lanaloth. Merchants and travelers no longer cross the Wastes freely, and the few who risk the journey bring reports of the Orghûl preparing for war.

And in the southwest, Mirelenai crumbles under the weight of its own corruption. The Seamistress and her loyalists wage a losing war against organized criminals and the power-hungry nobles who fund them.

The days are dark for the Marches, and hope dwindles in the face of such opposition, like a flickering candle at midnight.

And there is one who seeks to extinguish it…

So there you have it, the introduction to the Bordermarches. Sadly, with this limited information, it’s run-of-the-mill fantasy fare. But I hope to reveal and explain some core concepts that I believe set it apart as unique.

And right off the bat on that list is the “troubling complications of scientific progress.”

Maybe Lego is Eevil too

For the sake of writing some blogs related to D&D, I liked the idea of pointing out some of the awesome products Paizo has produced, calling them “eevil” as a joke, because DANG IT STOP TAKING ALL MY MONEY GIVE ME THAT NEW MAP PACK AND THOSE MINIS.

Today, as a favor to my two older boys, we went to www.Lego.com in order to sign them up for a free magazine.

One of them is obsessed with Ninjago — a fighting game with Lego men holding weapons on special bases that spin like tops.

One of them is the true Lego maniac, the boy who grabs me every day and pulls me to his room to show me the new robot / spaceship / pirate / helicopter / Firefly-class playset he’s built.

Yes, really. My son and my daughter cooperated to build themselves a Serenity playset.

Sooner or later, I’ll post about our attempts at Lego D&D, and I have several pictures of some of the pieces we used to make that possible. I’ve included one as an example.

Lego Kaalistera
Lego D&D Assassin

Anyway, I made a horrible discovery on the Lego site.

As if Lord of the Rings sets — with a little Lego Gollum (squeee!) —

Let’s try that again.

The link is worth checking out, if you’re interested in the sets at all. They have videos describing the sets and all the special features meant to match the movies. The designers (some of whom seem hilariously out of their element doing that whole “trying to interact with people” thing) even take some time to play with the sets.

And again, Lego Gollum.

As if those weren’t enough reason to waste all my disposable income for the month, now I find that they’re going to be putting out a line of Lego Monster Hunters.

There are vampires, swamp things, mummies, ghosts, werewolves, mad scientists with stitched-together animated flesh creations (a la Frankenstein)…

And zombies, just in time for the Zombie Apocalypse of 2012. (Lego Bath Salts not included.)

Briiiiiiiicksss….
Briiiiiiiiiiickssss….

And there are of course heroes ready to hunt these monsters and stop their evil plots (hence the name of the line). The heroes struck me as kind of “meh” but their vehicles and gadgets looked pretty sweet.

For the kids, I mean. They looked sweet to the kids.

Think of the children.

So, while tooling around the website, showing my kids all the things they will probably never own, my son points out the word “Video Game.”

ORLY?

Yes. LOTR has a Lego game coming out at some point.

And there’s Lego Batman 2, the mere sight of which was enough to explode my six-year-old’s mind.

And there’s a bunch of others that I won’t get into, because I haven’t looked at them yet and I don’t want to because that leads to using credit cards down at GameStop and children whining at me asking for the 360 controller so they can play while I “check out the game” as a responsible parent should, and then my wife has to intervene because “Why are the children crying and what happened to Justin’s birthday present–are you playing his game?”

Bad all around.

Of course, looking at these amazing sets coming out soon, I asked, “How much does blood plasma sell for and how much can I survive donating?”  And I had the natural “old parent” reaction of, “You kids don’t know how good you have it! Back in my day, we never had stuff like this!”

I actually remember the very first Lego set I ever saw or paid any attention to: it was probably 1983 or so, and as part of some church function, there was a gift exchange. I received a sweet little Lego space set, from the glorious days before Lego even had actual horses with their Castle sets.

Check out the steering wheel!                                  Every spaceship needs one.

 

In my search for a picture of the model, I found Brickipedia, which was a sweet stroll down memory lane.

I spent hours at my friend’s house orchestrating the destruction of Lego City. He had a few of the huge building play sets, like the gas station, police headquarters, fire department, and some kind of house. We got together a bunch of vehicles and began plowing them into the buildings from a distance. The game was that you couldn’t simply smash the vehicle into a building. You had to roll it from a few feet away. Bricks flew everywhere, but those sets were built sturdy. It took quite some time to bring those buildings down.

I remember working really hard to earn a prize from Sunday School in 4th grade. The deal was that the winner would get a $25 gift certificate at Toys’R’Us, and this was when the Lego Castle sets with Robin Hood style minifigures first came out. I ended up getting a camouflaged fortress that looked like a small hill with a tree, but had a secret door and hatch you could open up to reveal the hidden shelter inside.

I recall seeing new Kingdoms sets at the Base Exchange a few years ago, with giant trolls and angry orcs and and skeleton armies arrayed against the forces of good. On top of that, there was a dwarf mine, with a pulley and a forge and a little track for a mine cart to roll on. My wife surprised me by purchasing pretty much every set, and we had them built on the coffee table for a little while until the kids destroyed them.

Lego has been a part of my life almost as long as I can remember.

So if I’m willing to call Paizo “eevil” because I keep buying their products…

Then Lego must be the Devil, sparkling like a vampire from Twilight, with a Hitler mustache and Rick Astley’s red hair, singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” while dancing the Macarena in Nazi jackboots.

And they’ll still get my money.

So how about you? What’s your first experience with those eevil little bricks?

"Cakewalk"

A steady breeze fought against the summer noonday blaze and swept across the gentle slope at the feet of the Chornauren Mountains. Unfazed by the heat, a small form in tattered clothes struggled on its way, one foot dragging behind, twisted, making a rasping noise as it slid upon the rocky ground.

Must… reach… Khordûn…

There were a few leagues to go yet. This was the difficult part, the part where Neldon had failed so many times before. The northern end of the Chornaurens was dotted with mines, property of the dwarvish kingdom he wanted to reach. He had to avoid them as long as possible, to delay contact until he could reach the city gates.

But many other creatures made their homes in mountain caves, creatures much less reasonable, far less diplomatic.

Less reasonable than dwarves… Neldon thought with a chuckle.

Save energy. Don’t think. He gave himself one more thought, goal in mind once again. Khordûn.

The twisted foot scratched through dirt and gravel as Neldon struggled on.

The ‘Marches were mostly wide open spaces, untamed, difficult to traverse safely by day, perilous by dark. He had been lucky last night; the moon was waning, but it was still near full. Even that limited light kept many of the mountain’s denizens in their caverns, and so he had shambled along all through the night.

There was no pain, no sense of the withering heat, no thirst or hunger. There was only the next step forward… never turning, always pointed for the gates of Khordûn.

The word had come to mean “hope” to Neldon, and so much more than that. If he was to survive, if he was to escape his daily torment, Khordûn would be the answer. The elves of Lanaloth were too far away to the south, and the human settlements across the plains were too small to help– what few survived the Bloodsworn invasion during the winter. Aelwyn might hold an answer, but that was a day’s travel past Khordûn at a healthy pace.

In the distance, Neldon thought he heard the sounding of a horn, and he scanned the sparse growth for cover. A few paces to his left, the stony ground rose sharply about half his height, and the tangle of bramble there would help. He turned hastily, lurching forward.

His injured foot caught on the sharp rocks, taking him off balance. Unable to fully catch himself, he slammed into the ground and thought he heard another bone break, this one in his arm.

A second horn sounded, and he heard shouting, too distant to make out. He had no time to worry about the injury, let alone get back on his feet. Crawling forward, pushing even with his misshapen foot, he half-lurched, half-skittered into his chosen hiding place.

Panic set in as he listened for approaching voices. He hadn’t expected to be spotted this far out. Had he attracted too much attention on his last few attempts?

The deep voices drew nearer, and he would have sighed in relief if he could. At least they were dwarves, and not goblins or worse. Dwarves of Khordûn. My only hope.

If they would listen this time.

“…saw it over there, I think!” one voice called.

“Sure moved quick if it were one o’ them again,” said another, a female with a tone of authority. “Spread out, lads. Be lookin’ out for others. They raid in packs.”

They raid at night, fool. I come each time alone in the light of day.

Stop thinking so much! Above all else, Neldon knew he must not be detected. A few stray thoughts here and there would not arouse Palla-Nel’s suspicion… or so Neldon hoped.

“Ya see anything?” the leader called out.

“Just rock and thistle down here,” a voice replied from nearby. “Strange, don’tcha think it, Ma’am?”

“What’s that, Torhalin?”

“Well, as ya said, there oughtta be a pack of ‘em about these slopes if there’s a one. But there ain’t. An’ you heard Hammerhelm’s patrol talk how they saw just one the other day too.”

“A scout, then,” she replied tersely.

Neldon peered through the bramble looking for the source of the nearby voice. The dwarf stood four paces from Neldon’s little refuge.

“I just–“ the dwarf continued. “It ain’t good sense, to come scout in the daylight across open ground.”

She ignored him and stamped further up the incline. The dwarf shook his head.

My chance… Neldon thought. Khordûn…

“…help… …me…”

The raspy whisper was just enough to get Torhalin’s attention, and the dwarf looked about as Neldon whispered again. “Help… me… …please…”

“…quietly…” Neldon whispered, but it was too late.

“It’s over here!” the dwarf yelled, and the others came lumbering down the hill, chainmail clinking, axes and hammers drawn.

Neldon knew this attempt had also failed, but he clung to a small hope. He rose from hiding, and spoke as clearly as he could muster.

“My name is Neldon Darowdin, from the town Delfindor. Our town was destroyed by a lich, who is now attacking you by night. He has–“

“Shut up, ya bag o’ filth!”

The squad leader roared as she sprang through the air, hammer swinging down toward the decayed form. Neldon tried to dodge, but the stroke connected with his right arm, tearing the skeletal limb from his ravaged body, scattering pieces of rotted flesh down the hill.

“The lich, Palla, is–“ he continued, salvaging what remained in this opportunity. But her next stroke tore through his jaw, shearing skull from spine. As his head fell away, she spun back around to plant the spiked end of her hammer deep in the undead creature’s ribcage.

By luck, the skull landed upright, and as the sickly green glow of undeath faded from its eye sockets, Neldon watched the other dwarf closely. Torhalin stared back, lips parted as with something to say, brow furrowed considering this strange event. Perhaps the message would get through this time. Someone would recognize the name from decades earlier.

Neldon returned to the black, the empty void. There was an advantage, however small, to the psychic bond formed when Palla consumed Neldon’s body and became Palla-Nel.

Neldon reached out tentatively, listening for any reaction from the lich at the loss of one of its slaves. Palla-Nel’s focus remained fixed on digging deeper under the mountain, seeking… always seeking. Seeking what, Neldon did not know, but while Palla-Nel’s attention was diverted elsewhere, Neldon could take another husk and send it on his fool’s errand.

This was the easy part. Just one simple, overriding thought filling the new husk’s head as it lumbered off. Khordûn. Must… reach… Khordûn.