Years Below

Around Christmas time, my mind turns to Christmases past. For the most part, that means thinking about Dungeons and Dragons.[1] When I was a child, from about the age of 12, Christmas would be when I’d get D&D books and boxes. But it’s that first D&D Christmas[2] that sticks with me, in the form of Night Below.

I’ve written about the Night Below before, elsewhere, but that’s disappeared in to the internet. I remember first seeing Night Below at Volume One, a defunct UK bookshop. It was a regular stop off on my route home from school.[3] There began a habit that continues to today, where I feel no more at peace than when I get to browse the bookshelves. They had an extensive RPG[4] section.

My initial understanding of what Night Below was, was completely wrong. I read “The Underdark Campaign” and imagined it was a setting,[5] where you took on the roles of the various gribbly beasts of the underworld in some alien brew of warmongers, machiavells, and lunatics all conspiring beneath a sky of stone.

I was no less delighted on the Christmas day when I opened the big parcel and inside was the big box.[6] The paper torn aside, the lid lifted, and inside books and maps and all sorts of wonder. I sat down to read it, alongside all my rulebooks acquired at the same time.

Night Below takes place in a generated-for-the-adventure setting of Haranshire, intended to plonked down just about anywhere.[7] At the top of every page, a strange little Otus-like Bugbear crawls across a header; it starts with little sections on character training, gold as xp, and why can’t Elminster sort it? These are all very pressing questions for an RPG, believe it or not. There’s a map with names like Thornwood, Broken Spire Keep, full page black and white illustrations that border on the camp.[8] There are a dozen factions and threats, with about half of them in the first book alone. I admit that it was the first book, the Evils of Haranshire, that grabbed me.

I resolved to run it immediately.

First Descent

It is nearly twenty-two years since that first foray in to the Underdark.[9] Some parts I can remember vividly. I know that I had all of my brothers join in, plus one of their girlfriends. I can remember some of the characters: Rick, the oldest, played a fighter who pretended to be a wizard; Jim and Kris played a pair of scallywag illiterate mercenaries who absconded with the cargo and headed down the river to The Other Village, only to get eaten by a giant frog. My oldest brother dropped out and my mum took over his character.[10] There was friction between Kris and Lucy (the girlfriend of Jim) where she put caltrops on the bedroom floor and he stomped over them in dwarf boots.

It was all pretty ludicrous. I don’t think it lasted for more than three sessions. It was also peak D&D… or so I thought.

Second Outing

The second visit to Haranshire was myself running for and playing alongside[11] three of my brothers.[12] Jon was a tough Dwarf fighter, Liam was a tricksy Kender handler,[13] I started as a mysterious Elf druid and then just switched to be a War Cleric[14] instead, and Kris was Synoch, a Gnome Necromancer reincarnated as a human to get the Int bonus but avoid that pesky level limit.[15] He also had a staff of the archmagi from tagging along on an adventure with some other characters.

Peak D&D.

I remember only little bits about this one: Liam getting in to tricksy shenanigans. Kris and I levelling armies with our magic. I think we got the furthest of all, about the entrance to the Sunless Sea, before we just got bored and gave up. Turns out all the power of the gods doesn’t override the fact that the second book, Perils of the Underdark, is just a bit of a slog.

Last Night

It would be a few years before I’d turn again to Haranshire. This last attempt is also, to me, the greatest. We didn’t get as far as the second attempt, but what we did do was really good. I had a great time converting it and running it.

A new version of D&D had been released.[16] I’m not entirely sure what made me turn my attention back to Night Below, but I decided to carry out a full conversion of the module to the new runs and then run it. Liam and Jon were still in, and joined by my oldest friend Rob.[17]

For whatever reason, the group convened with no magic: Rob played Kennan Oakhelm, a zealous goblin hunting ranger; Liam was Leonard de Molotoff, Gnome Fighter with a custom crossbow; Jon was Bleck, a half Orc Barbarian.[18] I loved the whole group but Bleck remains, without reservation, one of my favourite characters in a game ever, ever. It’s not in the least that he was a cliché busting, stereotype avoiding iconoclast. Quite the opposite. But Jo played Bleck to the hilt as a lusty, loud, face smacking warrior for muscles. He was also the leader and, thanks to playing an impatient glory hound, the group never stopped moving.

They accomplished a lot across Haranshire. They got caught in the middle of an Orc/Goblin war. They busted up several smugglers rings. In one of our best set pieces, the core trio managed to hold off an army of Gnolls on their home turf.[19] They even managed to crack parts of the mystery around the abductions in Haranshire and pursue the middle-management villain to his lair.

It fizzled out in the end due to external factors, but it remains one of my top campaigns.

Future Expeditions

It’s been, then, nearly ten years since I last ran Night Below. Every few years, I do crack it open and have a look over either, as above, to reminisce, or so below, to think of what I would do with it now. I’m not running anything and I’m sans group,[20] so it’s purely academic, but I like the theoretical exercise.

I focus on the first book. There’s two reasons for this. First, most obvious, biggest, is that the Evils of Haranshire is just better than books 2 or 3, by quite a large margin in the case of Perils. It’s a very nicely fleshed out area, with two population centres, a bunch of vibrant locales, multiple enemy centres all coiling in to the central conspiracy. It has several notable characters to interact with, ranging from cranky wizards to bizarre cults and on up to a restive green dragon. It also encourages you to add more details.[21]

The last attempt I made was a full conversion of the campaign – and I’m pretty glad I did. It meant I read through everything in the module and translated every detail. That was third edition D&D and that kind of full scale build was pretty much mandated by the scope of changes between editions. It’s not really possible to run orcs from 2nd edition as is in 3rd. More than that, though, it meant I had to relearn what is going on, who is where, and what’s going on. It’s quite good prep in general.

The latest version of D&D is, I think, probably fully capable of running Night Below almost as is. It more or less plays as a revised and tidied up version of 2nd edition, almost as if the two editions between had never existed. With only a little bit of a fudge around Saves, it probably works. But I don’t think I’d do that. On the other hand, there are other options.

The characters in the as is Night Below are positioned as outsiders coming in to town and finding its problems. This is very true to the origins of D&D; it’s not really fantasy or mythic, D&D is a western I Tolkien costume. PCs are the persons of no name, the magnificent seven, hired guns brought on to deal with the restive natives.

What if I were to take another angle? Haranshire, especially the little towns of Milborne and Thurmaster, is positioned as the home base for a party, from which they will venture certain fathoms beneath the surface. But it could just be home. If modern D&D is a good enough fit for Night Below, Beyond the Wall could be even better, seeing as it adopts the Saving Throw and ability check models from older games.

In the context of the campaign, then, the characters would have all grown up in Haranshire, either in one or other (or both?) of the towns, or perhaps in the even smaller hamlet of Harlaton (where Milborn is the ‘big city’). The conspiracy in Night Below targets people they know; the abducted apprentice Jelenneth[22] might be a childhood friend and the characters go looking for her.[23]

Something I’d give thought to if I approached the campaign from this way, would be how recently the conspiracy started. In the original campaign, the solution and cause are both outside forces interfering with Haranshire. In this iteration, it’s a novel even disturbing the country idyll. I might prefer, then, to have the roots of the abductions stretch much, much further back. Magic users have always found it hard in the Shire. No one investigates because it’s only scary people[24] that get taken and that’s a release anyway. The characters, then, are those who seek to protect their home not just from monsters, but also from the complacence that has let the monsters thrive.[25]

Of course, one of the things that disillusioned me from Beyond the Wall was the complete lack of mechanical oomph behind inter-personal relationships, whether that’s between characters. D&D derived RPGs put the majority of their focus on combat resolution, less on noncombat challenges, and massive amounts on magic. For some this is a feature, for me it is a bug. Despite its origins as a D&D mega-campaign, Night Below opens with the intention that characters should be forming relationships and bonds with the people of Haranshire; friends, mentors, allies. Of course, the game leaves the arbitration of all that in the hands of the referee.

There are a lot of D&D adjacent and derivative games that integrate some sort of relationship mechanic. 13th Age[26] has the Icon dice. You could do something similar in Haranshire with the various NPCs as the relevant power players or, rather, agents of the power players in the area. I would almost certainly need to do some custom Icons, simply because the conspiracy in Night Below adds powers that don’t have a presence in 13th Age, namely that of the tentacled horrors in the deep and the people that love them. This would be helpful in the long stretch as the characters move out of the Evils and on in to Perils and Sunless Sea.

Another option, and one I prefer, is to steal Bonds from Dungeon World or, better, something like Influence from straight Powered by the Apocalypse conversions like Masks.[27] This is a really simple but really great mechanical widget representing obligation.[28] It can be used to help others… or for others to compel your aid.

I mentioned that I consider every few years how to execute Night Below. The influence idea ties a lot in to an idea I had for a Savage Worlds conversion[29] that involved one of the characters being created as a minor noble, the Baron of Blanryde, and told to clear up Haranshire and make it profitable. What I wanted to do was play around with the politics of the area and, in particular, explore how exactly a novitiate adventurer goes about (or fails) to conduct their feudal obligations.[30]

That feudal obligation links in to the Beyond the Wall idea of Haranshire as not just a base, but as home. If, on some symbolic level, the descent in to the earth represents a journey of discovery, then there needs to be a connection at every level. That’s probably why my mind always turns back to Night Below around this time of year. It’s a piece of my childhood that I can turn over in my hands and so continue to do so in my mind.

[1] I used to run a Christmas one-off RPG for friends. This year, my younger brother got in on doing that. I played a shirtless hobbit barbarian called Dirty Bilbo. It was pretty fun.

[2] For me. I was introduced by my brothers Jim and Rick and I’m sure they must have been gifted game books at some point.

[3] As was Games Workshop but I found – and find – GW an uncomfortable place to pop in to. There was always an aura at GW that clearly broadcast that I was not welcome. Never the case in the bookshop.

[4] Initially, this would be a D&D section but, as the 90s wound on, Storyteller games would start to be included. I think there might also have been some GURPs.

[5] The language all comes from D&D’s wargaming routes. Adventure, Campaign, Campaign Setting.

[6] I still remember that my parents were mortified when they thought they’d got the wrong thing when I said it wasn’t what I thought it was. I’m pretty sure I explained that I had misunderstood it, rather than they hadn’t gotten me exactly what I had asked for.

[7] A recurring theme in D&D. I’ll return to this frontier mentality later.

[8] Including one of an inexplicably near-nude sexy druid.

[9] Darkbad, Helltown, Shadowdark

[10] And, in retrospect, doing a really clever thing by shifting the character portrayal to an ascetic mystic and guardian of Liam (the youngest).

[11] This is always a bad sign.

[12] I have a lot of brothers and that means I tended to spend most of my childhood with them. Means I’m totally unable to relate to normal people.

[13] Not some sort of pervert groper, just a slightly worse version of the thief. Better skills, no backstab.

[14] That’s right, I went from one of the most powerful classes to the other of the most powerful classes. The intention was that the group needed a healer. Didn’t work out like that.

[15] This in particular still makes me chuckle.

[16] The 3rd edition, or possibly the 3.5 revision. Not sure. It’s only relevant that the rules had changed a great deal.

[17] Poor Rob. In my defence, he asked me to teach him D&D many years ago. I think it’s in his top three regrets.

[18] At points, the group would also be joined by my other brothers: Kris was a defrocked Bard/Cleric; Jim showed up as Kul Daeruk, a half Orc Rogue; Rick was a Dwarf Necromancer.

[19] Which, because they didn’t kill all the Gnolls and had to retreat, they thought they had lost.

[20] I’m playing in my younger brother’s D&D game and rather enjoying myself.

[21] Which I did in the form of orc nations, gnoll camps, slavers, and all sorts.

[22] D&D names. Jennifer would probably do.

[23] Grabbing a Conspiracymid from Night’s Black Agents would be a useful tool for looking at how the factions connect in Night Below.

[24] Witches get stitches

[25] I’ve just got Cubicle 7’s the One Ring and the passage of years could be an interesting way to get back to this.

[26] Which is probably my favourite D&D hack.

[27] As they’re doing, more or less, in World of Adventures.

[28] In the Mask variation, it represents that a person or thing is able to affect a character’s impression of themselves.

[29] For those who know Savage Worlds, it bears mentioning that my conversion had little to do with the rules of SW or even what it is good at.

[30] An Echo, Resounding could do this. I haven’t read enough of it, but it would also allow me to link back to the acquisition of wealth and the accrual of power – Night Below defaults to ‘Gold as XP’ in the traditions of D&D. There is something interesting about this, again, talking about the origins of D&D: It’s very much a game informed by libertarian ideals, the accumulation of wealth and minimisation of risk – and the ever tempting lure of betrayal to gain more loot.

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Squirrel

Today, after work, I saw a squirrel get hit by a car as it (the squirrel) attempted to cross the road. I had watched the squirrel, or rather its tail sticking up out of the long grass, making an earlier attempt but shying off just in time to avoid the first collision.
 
Its second attempt, it wasn’t so lucky. Despite a last minute dodge at impossible agility, the squirrel was sent spinning in the road. I thought it was dead. Another car drove over it, angling so that their wheels passed around rather than across the tiny body. Then I saw, impossibly, its chest rising and falling, first rapidly, then slowly. I carefully went in to the road to pick the squirrel up. An oncoming motorist slowed to have a closer look.
 
“Is he dead?” She asked.
 
“No. He’s been hit though.” I picked the squirrel up and, holding it against my chest, carried the squirrel off the road and on to the other side of the road it had been trying to reach. I put him on the grass. I opened up my phone and looked for a nearby vet. I figured he was going to die. As meaningless as it was to the animal, I hadn’t wanted to let it die in the middle of the road, bleeding out or crushed under a wheel. I don’t it was comforting, but I tried to smooth its fur as gently as I could.
 
There didn’t seem to be any broken bones. The only injury I could see was to the side of its head – a nasty cut. I assumed its brain must have been splattered inside its head and the breathing was just the motor functions of the squirrel playing out.
 
It started to move. First the forepaws, to pull itself on to its front. I assumed its back legs were probably paralysed. Then it moved, properly. Still bleeding, but mobile, the squirrel moved under a bush.
 
Not sure what to do, I picked him up again. I thought I could take it back in to work, get it cleaned up and maybe some water, then get it to a vet or an animal rescue centre. As I was carrying him, the squirrel wiggled a bit and sneezed.
 
Then, incredibly, he came out of my hands, up my arm, across my shoulders and jumped to the grass, sprinted under a bush and up a tree. Gone in about the time it took me to register him moving. The squirrel had caught sight of a man walking two dogs down the street and made a run for it.
 
I went home. It’s likely the squirrel will die anyway. But I hope it doesn’t.

Minutes at Ragnarok

Something silly to get back in to the swing of things.

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you yet know what they say?

Gold tooth there spoke
Called things to be
Asked each in turn
To give their share

First then was dancer,
Enthroned in lightning,
From the higher place he spoke
Of ranging field and far
There to bring our wisdom
As we returned wing-brother to our fold
Could and would and must do
Then of further flight
The curve of time
The dancer sang no more

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you know yet of what they say?

The huge, the ender
The caller of reserve
Cutter of those ties that bind
Come from the healer’s cave
Warned of a rising tide
Near great as any yet seen
Numbers he tumbled forth
Like jewels
He could not stay
For the healer’s cave
Had need of he to be away

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
You would hear the things they say?

Quick, the fast,
Though earthbound be his heel
He spoke of the stretch of time
And the back and forth
Of the names drawn from names
And of how this could be done
He was done but not finished

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Are you listening to what they say?

From the enders lair
Had the light raiser snatched
Some orderly serpents
Of what more she spoke
Was the three way war
Of names raised up
Only to be cast aside
Ender’s pupil, she likewise
Scattered diamonds

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Are you still listening to what they say?

Barrow mender, the sick watcher
Of her plight Goldtooth knew well
Many doors they had opened
Many names had been set howling
They saw the rising hump
Of many many more raised up on
The back of the new beast
And this more she spoke of
Of those hoarding things they should not
And of locks needing breaking

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Do you know the things they say?

Fighter, fist maker, fresh name
Of her battles we know much
Of those yet to come we know more
Her tale is short for now
But victorious

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Listen well to the things they say

The hammerer then came among them
To speak of those who range high
Enthroned in lightning
The storms has parted
Only to show a greater storm
And then the clouds behind needed tending
All this, the hammerer would do
As dancer stands by

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you yet know of what they say?

Coins then to change
Spent wisely
Watch closely
Quick ones variable
And the work of the one away
To record the names of names
As they pass through the gate

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Listen now to what words say

Gold tooth brought the end
Reminding that the end was well neigh
And the time of judgement loomed
And as hammerer and dancer looked at sky
A time of change, the quick, decreed
A time of judgement, said gold tooth
And remember to set your breath in jars

And so the circle broke
And the three across three
And one away
Set apart
Until the Black Horse rides
Or so they say.

Beyond the Wall

On 14 April 2016 I was able to try out this role-playing game by Flatland Games. I ran the game for two of my brothers using voip and an online dice roller. Thanks to the innovation of the playbooks and scenario packs, it was astonishingly quick to set up. It’s a simple game with a lot of elegant tweaks and, while I’m not a fan of the OSR movement in games or Tolkienesque fantasy in general, Beyond the Wall really worked for me.

I’ve played role-playing games for much of my life. I certainly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a twenty-sided die was for.[1] I think playing games helped me to develops maths and reading skills[2] but also gave me a pretty safe way to pass away the summer months when I was a child. I carried on playing as an adult, probably because it’s a bit cheaper than getting drunk all the time.[3] I think it’s a peculiar hobby, when you get in to it, especially as I usually end up as the games master, a position analogous but not identical to that of a referee in healthier pastimes. Basically, everyone else pretends to be Lord Grim Grimminity or The Sourcerer of Saigon and I’m taking the role of Hannibal Lector, the inn-keep of the Prancing Pony,[4] the armies of the Dark Lord, and also that tree with the net in it. I don’t know that is speaks to anything other than having a slightly administrative bent – it’s less about creativity as it is that I’m pretty good with spreadsheets. I’m being rather off-hand about the whole thing, but I’ve had some great times with RPGs, told some fun stories, and made some excellent friends.[5]

As I have grown, my tastes in gaming have developed and, more or less, solidified. I like modern games with crunchy powers and lots of fights. I am not too fond of role-playing in the acting sense; I enjoy throwing dice because of its uncertainty, I don’t feel I’ve much of a gift for putting on the silly voices. I vastly prefer non-standard fantasy; a sort of hodge podge of influences that allows me to have wizard schools be something between a mystery cult and a kung fu school, naming conventions drawn from anything other than Ye Olde Englande, and less adoration of kings and Lost Golden Ages.[6] Also, I tend not to care for nonhumans, especially hobbits, in fantasy, for a bunch of reasons.

Beyond the Wall then, probably shouldn’t be the kind of thing that appeals to me, but since I grabbed some of the alpha documents way back in 2012(?), I’ve found it rather charming. The initial hook is the playbook system. In BtW you can generate a character the same as you would in any other version of Dungeons and Dragons[7] and be on your way, but the writers recommend you use the Playbooks instead.[8] Each playbook focuses on a particular concept or archetype of adventurer, and then provides some random charts to flesh out your particular iteration. It begins with their childhood and then moves on to their life in the village, how they became an adult, and who their friends are. All the while, it squirrels away bonuses to your abilities, skills and so on, so that once you have rolled through the playbook, you have an idea both of what your character can do and who they are. Character generation extends in to the creation of the village, a process shared by the whole group.

For example, last night my two brothers rolled up an Assistant Beast Keeper, Shirley, and a Halfling Outrider, Cuthbert. Shirley was the son of a smith but learned a bit from everyone. He’s the witch’s apprentice and mucks out the stables. Soon, he’s marrying in to the Miller’s family. Cuthbert is the child of famous local “tobacco” farmers, he befriended a local merchant, and became friends with Shirley when they helped the ghost of a long forgotten murder victim. Of course, they also know that the Miller intended to have the local merchant robbed, leading to Shirley’s nuptials in some no doubt humorous manner. Shirley has a pet mouse he named Queso, Cuthbert is walking around with some treasure maps. This all from about fifteen minutes of dice rolling. While they were doing that, I was able to pull out a scenario pack and, with some rolls of my own, determine that some nefarious subterranean goblins had attacked their village, abducting the local merchant for unknown reasons – that not all the goblins were on board with.

These sorts of play aids are really useful. The prompts help encourage less confident, less assertive players[9] to contribute stuff to the game and the world, and it gives everyone a stake in events. At one point, while Shirley was trying to convince Queso to scout the goblin warren for him, Cuthbert got impatient because it’s his friend down there with the cannibals. I also really liked that I could get an adventure for an evening put together in the same time it took the group to make characters –  and not some desultory hacker[10] but a twisty warren with the potential for interaction and lateral thinking. Indeed, the two of them used peaceful means to get through the first encounters – feeding (and freeing) some hungry gob-dogs, negotiating passage with the lesser king of the goblins.

Locating the game in the village, with the heavy focus on the local and personal, helps resolve some of the problems I have with Tolkienesque fantasy. The characters are not princes or chosen ones, they’re just little locals with a bit more luck or talent than their fellows[11] but not set apart from them. It’s a focus I appreciate.[12] There are miss-steps, such as the continual reiteration of what your fathers did, who your father was, rather than leaving it as parents or parents, or even switching between mother and father. While I dislike the shades of benign aristocracy in the Noble playbooks,[13] I really like that the playbooks contrast and complement with the villagers. There is a difference between the Would-Be Knight, born of the village, and the Knightless Squire, heir to the manor, informing their backgrounds so that, while both might be wielding heavy arms, their origins have an impact on who they are as people.

To return to the specifics of my game session, then, this manifested in a series of rolls that linked Cuthbert and Shirley together. Cuthbert’s motivation for leaving his comfortable hobbit hole was the tales of far-off places that a visiting Merchant shared with him. Shirley is set to marry in to the Miller’s family. This came together when Cuthbert rolled that he had seen the Miller arranging for a thief to rob the Merchant – and Shirley helped Cuthbert to disarm the whole situation. This is a purely random series of accretions that have come together to present the backstory to Orford, but it was really cool in the way it turned out. Shirley and Cuthbert are fast friends because of this event – and in Shirley’s case, it got him a fiancée.[14]

Within the playing of the game itself, once I had determined the motivations of the goblins and the scope of the lair, BtW is modelled heavily after pre-3rd edition D&D systems. When making attacks or saving throws, one rolls high, for ability scores, one rolls low. On first read, I didn’t particularly care for this, it’s a needless complication that will slow down play as each person tries to remember whether they roll low or high this time. There is a sidebar in BtW that explains why this design choice was made: the roll under stat check means that there is a meaningful distinction between ability scores that don’t have a differing ability bonus – so a character with a 9 strength and one with 12 will have different chances of succeeding at a task without needing to proliferate bonuses. That’s pretty sound reasoning, so I kept it.[15] And, as this session featured mostly ability and skill checks rather than the clash of arms,[16] ability checks came up a lot more often. When it did come time to throw down, the combat rules are very simple – roll, hit, damage – but there is the option to adopt stances in combat, which I’ll probably look to integrate more later. I was able to vary monsters a little bit by upping their hit points, a simple fix that I probably wouldn’t have done in a more complex game.

This simplicity is probably BtWs greatest asset and but also a liability; it’s fun to give a little narration to action, but it doesn’t have any impact on the mechanical level. It certainly lacks the heft of 4th edition D&Ds ability to declare what type of attack you are making, or even 13th Age’s variable dice mechanics. There is something to be said for reliably representing outcomes within the system itself – so a warrior knows how to ding an enemy just so and leave them dazed, or a ranger can always find such and such an amount of food. And, as always, while everyone is free to describe actions and chance the dice, magic users retain a set of mechanical tools that allow them to declare that A Thing is Happening. I think that much of the Old School methodology considers this a feature, not a bug, so I don’t anticipate it getting examined at any point.

It’s a game that lends itself well to a decent sized group or a small one. I do think that, with more players, the interactions between playbooks and how that rolls out in the village is an incredible asset. I’d even be happy to look to import the playbook method in to other games. For future sessions, I’m looking to roll out the village generation, traits, and then area and threats. BtW was good fun and I’m looking forward to future sessions.

[1] Stacking up as towers.
[2] Though not language skills. Too much fantasy has left my grammar a pitiful wreck.
[3] I never really went down the rabbit hole of miniatures wargaming. I did have some lizardmen once. I stopped collecting them after being told that painting them like poisonous geckoes was Doing It Wrong. Tough lesson, but probably saved me a lot of money in the long run.
[4] I don’t like Tolkien, doesn’t mean I can’t reference him.
[5] Perhaps, given I have never been attached to a gaming scene, it might be better described that I have excellent friends who have allowed me to share with them my strange hobby.
[6] I am partial to Lost and Obscure Relics – but the thing I want is the past to be different, not better.
[7] Roll dice, pick class, record stuff, fight monsters.
[8] They also offer loads of them for free on their website.
[9] Not a problem with the two brothers I was playing with, mind.
[10] Which, to reiterate my stance earlier, I’d have no problem with. I like fights!
[11] I’m quite left wing. This way of thinking is quite often mischaracterised as thinking everyone is the same; it’s not, it’s that everyone is equal, which is really quite different.
[12] Though I’m not saying it’s a move to speak from the margins, I think it is certainly influenced by this impulse.
[13] The Nobility playbooks also include the only specifically gendered archetype: The Nobleman’s Wild Daughter. All the other playbooks don’t assign gender characteristics to the PC so generated. We could read this gendering as implying that all the other playbooks are neutrally male – especially the predominantly martial types such as the Squire and the Future Warlord, given that her skill at arms marks the NWD as transgressive. That could be a problem for some groups. We could assume that this is a (social) class rooted constraint; a Local Hero can be a woman because gender roles are less strictly enforced on the sharp edge of survival. Still, If one player is making a NWD and another making a Squire who happens to be a woman, it creates a conflict in concept. I also think, that it pays to bear in mind the source materials: that is, not that women did not fight in history, but the fiction that BtW is inspired by, which includes many, many very very popular examples of your women who rose up to fight against the wishes and expectations of their society. It is an example of importing inequality to a secondary world in service to audience expectations.
[14] Which is an interesting connection all in its own right – I tend not to focus on relationship issues within game, but here’s a fresh hook.
[15] Also, one of my players has the most atrocious dice luck, so being able to succeed on a low roll is a rare chance to shine for him. Or to fool the dice gods, depending on how superstitious you are.
[16] Shirley and Cuthbert successfully negotiated with a pack of Gob-Dogs and the Goblin King, though they would later go on to fight the King anyway. It was reasonable in the context of the game.

This Power Might Not Last

During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.

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The Shadow of a Passing Year

As I write this, I am sat on a train heading north from High Wycombe to Nottingham (transfers at Banbury and Derby). It is the 31st December, the last day of 2015, and I am once again collecting my thoughts before heading to a New Year’s Eve party. Apart from that, in almost every sense, I am very far from the point I was at this time last year.

2015 has probably been my worst year, even considering life-threatening illness, injury, and other sundry miseries that have afflicted my life. I’m choosing not to dwell because there’s little point, but the first nine months of the year can be accurately described as in the shit. I am in no hurry to revisit them, so I shall move on to when things picked up. Similarly, and perhaps a little selfishly, I think that for all the tragic events of this year, others have said it better than I. Sometimes, the only appropriate response is silence.

I have been living and working in High Wycombe for three months now. My job, which I won’t go in to for security reasons, has been going well enough. The people I work with are quite nice people, though many of them are leaving in 2016, including one of the two who have been coaching me in my role. As is always the case when someone departs, there is a wistfulness for those who remain as the change forces them to reflect on their own position. Largely, it is a job and like all jobs something that is done to pay for the things we like – capitalism fails – but right now the novelty of a monthly pay cheque has not worn off. For my part, I am hopeful that the new year will offer me chances to continue my development. I work with a place that offers excellent access to training and I intend to exploit it to the fullest.

If my workplace has been welcoming, my new lodging has not. Nothing sums it up more fully than this: Having returned from my visiting my parents’ over Christmas, I found a Christmas card left outside my door. The message? “Please remember to empty the bins once a week and switch off all lights.” None is the worse tyrant than the petty one.

Socially, High Wycombe has been challenging! I’m not, nor have I ever been, the kind of person who can just go in to a pub or café[1] and start making friends. Yet I did not wish to live in isolation in my new home, if for no other reason than it would be quite boring. I have made a few efforts to meet people that have had some success, using the site meetup to, well, meet up. I have gone to a coffee meeting in Marlow where I met a group of older adults. They were friendly and chatty but I found I had little in common with them. I have also signed up with a reading group, which I really enjoyed and will be going to again at the end of January for The Martian.[2]

The largest and most active group has been the most challenging. After a shaky start at a comedy club, where I largely did not get to talk to anyone, I had two more events with them. The first, at Halloween, was a complete farce. I up alone in costume walking the streets of London as they had missed the train. The next time I met them, for brunch at a local bar, was similarly fraught, as they chose not to sit at the table they had booked. I elected to give it one last shot for a Christmas meal in Marlow. I admit that, with so many false starts, I was a little trepidatious. I half expected them to have changed reservations at the last moment. Thankfully, I went through with it and had a chance to speak with everyone. They seem like very nice people, so I was glad I did.

I have been able to read a great deal more, despite having less free time. I think this is probably a result of having to give structure to my days, what with having demands on my time. I have meant to write a little on the books that I have read since coming to High Wycombe, but I suppose there I but up against the limits of my time. I’ve moved back on to non-fiction for the last little bit of they year, having just finished Flynn’s new biography of Genghis Khan. At some point I will try and look back on some of the things I have read; Rivers of London, in particular, was both better and more thoughtful than I expected.

I continue to write, much the same as I did last year. Having finished ‘The Mountain’s Shadow’[3] I returned to an old, old idea of mine. I first came up with what was then titled ‘Zodiac Rising’ on the train to Stoke-on-Trent to visit my then girlfriend while she was at university. The bones of the tale, a journey of self-discovery, remain; all else – gods, magic, monsters – has gone. I’m a very slow writer but I try to put in 500 words a day – some days I do more – and it currently sits at 100,000 words. Some months ago I returned to rewrite the beginning, which is extending things somewhat. I had originally intended to do one and done but I am now thinking that perhaps it could work split in to two parts. The vital thing for now is to focus on getting it finished, then I can worry about the rest. I suspect this time next year I shall still be writing about it!

Something else that I am looking forward to in the new year is my return to running role-playing games. I and two of my brothers had been dabbling, in a desultory manner, with gaming[4] while I still lived in Gloucestershire. I have invited a few friends to take part in a VOIP game session drawing inspiration from pretty much the entirety of my gaming life. Titled ‘The Road of the King’[5] the concept is that the characters are the children of a band of great and good heroes who were felled by an insidious and triumphant evil – the “King” – and it is up to this new generation to take up the fight. I’ve written a fair bit on the setting[6] and am really looking forward to it – largely because of the excellent character ideas I’ve already received.[7]

The past two weeks saw me back at my parents for Christmas. I visited Liam and Susie in their new home in Quedgeley, which is a lovely little house just right for them. He showed me his pride and joy[8] while Susie jetted off on hers.[9] I went to a Greek restaurant, the Mythos,[10] in Chepstow with Jim. I saw my parents, more of my brothers, and my nieces. I went for a run and, for the first time, fell over while doing so. The foresters appear to have taken a dislike to their trees, hewing them haphazardly and turning the paths in to mud-slicked nightmares. It rained a lot. I ate a lot. I played far too much World of Wacraft.[11]

With the liberty afforded me by salaried employment,[12] I’m actually able to play things for the coming year. In addition to ongoing little things like theatre trips and a triumphant return to watching an awful lot of awful films.[13] Like the world and his dog, I went to see Star Wars VII. It was probably my film high-light of the year.[14] I took two of my brothers on the trip and all three of us were absolutely thrilled. As we left the cinema, we were pleased but as we walked and talked, comparing the little details of craft and wonder, our esteem grew and grew. It was not a film that shocked or surprised, but rather a master-piece of intentional design – much like the original Star Wars film. Others may not have enjoyed it as much as I; I wouldn’t know, I stopped reading op eds about it even before it had screened. Unusually for me, I am keen to see it at the cinema again – I may go while in Nottingham, or when back in Wycombe.

I’m also hoping to get back in to regularly watching theatre. So far, I’ve restricted myself to National Theatre screening of plays, so as to recoup the cost of moving and setting up here in Wycombe, but I am thinking of going to see the Branagh production of Romeo and Juliet in the summer. I have been recommended the Wycombe Swan; at the moment it is panto season (which I do not care for) but hopefully something will tickle my fancy. There have been some mumblings among the social groups I have attached to about going to some cultural events – they’re still of an age where clubbing and rekt is the main diversion – and I think I would enjoy the company.[15]

I also have bigger plans in the offing. Having missed 2Cellos perform in London, I have looked up their tour dates and am planning a trip in late May to see them in Munich. That will be a bit of a double treat, as it will be a chance to see performers I greatly esteem and my first trip outside of Britain since 2012, when I went to Paris. It will be my second trip to Germany.[16] The chocolate comes highly recommended. I am also hoping to return to Edinburgh for the Fringe festival in August. This is being arranged with the Meet-up group so there is every chance it will go wrong. Finally, and most excitingly, my brother Jim and I are planning a trip to Marrakesh in time for Christmas/New Year’s for 2016. It will be the first time I have been off continent. I anticipate growing fat from all the tagine I will be eating.

[1] Not that Britain has a café culture. More’s the pity.

[2] I was a bit pleased that a group primarily focused on literary fiction chose a sci-fi book to start the year. On the other hand, a reviewer I greatly admire has made a good case that ‘The Martian’ isn’t a sci-fi novel at all. We shall see!

[3] At least for now. I have some further ideas to expand it.

[4] 13th Age for those who are curious and care about system.

[5] RPGs are where I get my latent pomposity out, I’m sure.

[6] RPGs are also where I allow myself the luxury of world-building – mental masturbation at its finest. For those who have read me elsewhere, this is a reimagining of the Xerxes/Sol Crucis setting.

[7] I don’t want to tell you about my character, but I really do about these guys! A demon-summoning warrior and the son of a Time Lord and the Old Woman of the Mountain. Sweet.

[8] Playstation 4

[9] A motorbike

[10] I am not an aficionado of Greek cuisine, but the food was excellent and the service great.

[11] I seem to relapse at Christmas. I got a rocket this year.

[12] It is amazing the difference money makes. People parrot the cliché that it cannot buy you happiness but the honest truth is that without it, you will be miserable.

[13] I was so excited for Black Mass and it let me down.

[14] But Fury Road is so close!

[15] I do have a theatre buddy in London, but she is occupied with work commitments most of the time. Those hyenas won’t hunt themselves.

[16] I stayed in Berlin while travelling Europe in my early twenties

There Are No Gods or Monsters Here

On Saturday 14 November 2015, I went to see the penultimate performance of Medea by Almeida Theatre. This was a new interpretation written by Rachel Cusk. While based on a play several thousand years old, there are many alterations made for this version, so please be aware that I will be spoiling the play to discuss them. I saw the National Theatre’s production of Ben Power’s version of Medea last year and wrote about my impressions here.

I saw Medea as part of a day out to London with a bit of an antique focus. Prior to the play, I went to the British Museum to look at the Celts exhibition, though that does span from antiquity right up to the modern age. I had had some chance to walk among the artefacts of an ancient age and, in conversation with the friend I was travelling with, refreshed thoughts of the ancient world.

However, this version of Medea, as with the version I saw last year, was a modern interpretation and even further from the source text. It was composed and produced as part of the Almeida Theatre’s ‘Greeks’ season, which also included Oresteia and The Bakkhai. The set, which is sparse and minimalist, a kind of opened up studio space on two levels, immediately intimated to us that this would not be a simple revival of the Classical text.

Kate Fleetwood is phenomenal in the title role and not equalled by any other performer on the stage, though Andy de la Tour comes close when he assumes the role of Kreon. Fleetwood rages, weeps, rages again at Jason, at circumstance, at the on looking audience. This address of the audience invites us to consider our complicity in Medea’s situation: that we as, voyeurs of her breakdown, do contribute it, that in needing her to go through this we are somehow abrogating our responsibility to feel as she does in our lives.

While I enjoyed the play, I was left with a sense that while called Medea, it wasn’t actually Medea that I was watching. As with the Power version, Cusk had chosen to have the characters speak naturalistically, without reference to lyricism. I am beginning to think that this might be a mis-step with performance in general. While it might seem artifice, I think that when something is performed for that stage, attention must be given to the manner in which people listen, as well as they speak. A certain lyricism carries the watcher on through soliloquies. Furthermore, the exchanges between Jason and Medea become screaming matches which, again, while certainly representative, mean that I was little able to follow the exchange. Having bought the script, I can see the effect on the page, but it did not translate to the stage. The only use of verse was on the lips of the Messenger[1], but I found the structure of these lacking and more than a little affected. I wonder if they were intended to evoke an impression of the otherworldly divine, a Dionysian madness and ecstasy, but if so it didn’t have that effect on me.

In Cusk’s version, Medea remains and outsider but this is less pronounced than Power’s version or in Euripides original. Here she is a writer, considered ‘weird’ by the chorus, difficult, ‘a feminist.’ She is harangued by her mother and enjoys an uncertain relationship with her father, yet they are alive and interact with her. Yet she is not the barbarian outsider, the kinslayer and kingslayer of Colchis, and this robs Medea, and by extension the play, of much of its gravity. Medea is dangerous. We know this from the start of things. She has killed before, killed for, and killed because of Jason.

In the source text, the wrong done to Medea by Jason is profound: for him she destroyed her family and has no life to which she can return to.[2] She came to Athens, bore his children, only for him to set her aside at earliest convenience. It is not just that the divine element is gone, it is that the violent character of Medea is erased. It is important to understanding Medea’s response that she is this violent outsider; she has no other recourse to seek. Cusk’s situation is perhaps more relatable to a modern audience, but the change echoes through the play, reducing the moral gravity of events.

Because Medea has not been so wronged by Jason, her revenge similarly cannot be so terrible. In an odd sort of way, this version itself flinches away from rather than confronting the impossible conundrum that Euripides set his audience. The Messenger tells us that there are ‘other ways to kill than knives’ but part of the impact of Medea’s murder is that she carries it out; she transgresses our societal ideas of the duty of motherhood to carry out the divine justice against an oath-breaker. In this version, she instead gains revenge by being a Cassandra to Jason’s downfall. She simply tells a story that goes on to ruin Jason and Glauce’s life. She does not kill Glauce and Creon; Glauce turns out to be horrible and is attacked by a stranger anyway. Creon in turn goes mad. The boys are not murdered, but instead they commit suicide; a tragedy, to be sure, but it does not reflect on Medea, or on us as a society in our treatment or attitudes to motherhood. In a way, the retributive acts are shifted more on to gods, fate, or karma, than in the original. This version does dwell on the judgement of mothers who abandon their children but the power of Medea is that she does something not just unspeakable but unthinkable: she transgresses the moral laws of Athenian (and our) society by upholding the moral law of her own.

Likewise, this Jason is himself something of a milquetoast. He is an actor, probably, having a mid-life crisis. He is not a hero or a wanderer. While it remains that he and Medea are peers – “uncompromising” says this Aegeus. The visiting friend, now an agent in the US, thought of them as soulmates, that as they played chess that “these two people get to have sex with each other too?” The oath between this Medea and Aegeus is also less conflicted: Medea agrees to ghost-write Aegeus novel, but he will produce a play for her. In Euripides’ play, Medea has Aegeus offer her sanctuary in Athens – binding him by the same traditions that will condemn her as a kinslayer in the end.

By changing Medea’s past, changing her from someone instrumental to Jason’s success, the Cusk version robs his betrayal of much of his force. She is an considered out by her peers, but not the absolute outsider that is her position in Euripides play; in many ways, this allows her struggle to be a reflection of that of all women, but taking out the specificity of her situation makes the conclusions lukewarm. By taking the knife from Medea’s hand, Cusk makes her less easily wicked, but also less active. Indeed, in the play all of the resolution takes place in a soliloquy given by the Messenger; a striking bit of theatre as Medea silently shovelling dirt in to a grave, but less than McRory’s Medea considering her children, knife in hand.

The play, rather than being about moral consequence, simply becomes that unpleasant things spiral out of control. Jason is an indifferent father, Medea becomes an absentee mother, and the children kill themselves; the events are sad, and trigger one another, but there is not the conflicted connection of motive and action that makes each actor culpable. I can appreciate the symmetry here, that as Euripides’ Medea was a killer so kills, Cusk’s Medea is a writer so revenges herself through the act of writing, but the changed version lacks the visceral force of the original. Indeed, by having the children take their own lives, it lessens the moral anguish of Medea’s and Jason’s guilt because, while they might be poor or absentee parents, the children become moral actors on their own account – their deaths are something else bad that happens to rather than happens because.

The changes made are good on their own. Having Medea be a suffering middle aged woman, victim of her husband’s mid-life crisis, is something that speaks directly to the experience of the audience.[3] There is also the symmetry of her as writer using words to injure Jason; as the Classical Medea is a kinslayer, so kinslaying is her weapon of choice against Jason. It might have been of use to have had her writing somehow directly buoy Jason up – some mention of them first meeting when she wrote a play that he starred in, that kick-started his career. The Chorus, while not used in a traditional sense, accurately convey both society’s disdain towards this Medea, but also serve as a useful pacing mechanism: as the play progresses, their initial complacency is gradually eroded as they fragment in to their own voices and desires. Eventually, they will dance with Medea and help her as she disassembles her life.

The Messenger does not lie: There are no gods or monsters here. But perhaps there should be.

[1] The Messenger was an amazing bit of costuming: when she first entered they stage, side on, they were the image of a Monroe like figure. Then, turning full on, we see that she is an intersexual Janus, half-man half-woman. This was really visually striking.

[2] It is important to remember when watching or reading Medea that the play is titled for her, placing her immediately as the protagonist. Euripides could have easily named the play “The Tragedy of Corinth” or focused on Creon or some such. Instead, we are implicitly in a position where we are asked to understand and even empathise with the actions of someone who does something monstrous, that we ask what is was that pushed them to this extreme end.

[3] Having Medea being a middle-aged white woman whose primary source of income is writing be served by a maid who is a woman of colour – the only person of colour on the stage – does eliminate some of the ‘disenfranchised outsider’ that is necessary to Medea’s core narrative.