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.
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The Man without Leg Days

About three months ago I embarked on a bit of a fitness jig. While I was in the forest, this involved getting up to do half an hour of sinawali, going for a run in the forest around lunch time, and lifting weights before bed. It’s not a particularly intensive regime – more on that in a bit – but it does mean I’m exercising for between an hour and ninety minutes every day. I’ve, in the main, kept this up in the two and a half weeks I’ve been living in High Wycombe, despite having to find a new running route and adjust my time table accordingly. At the moment, I am up at half-six to get in the time for my escrima.

My motivations for this are as dorkly as anything. I really like dressing up in costume for Halloween and, a few months back, watched the Netflix Daredevil series.[1] I quite liked it, and especially liked the ‘Black Mask’ look. I thought I would poach it but, at that point, I was in shabby shape. The components for the costume were relatively easy to get together[2] but, to quote a phrase, I did not want to look like a bipedal frog, all spindly limbs and bubble belly.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a bit of ‘get fit.’ I first started caring about exercise when I was about sixteen, seventeen. That was prompted by, of all things, a news article about Michael Jackson hiring a personal trainer because he was worried about bone strength and getting brittle in old age.[3] This made me worry about the state of my bones. So, I started doing a little bit of body-weight stuff – press-ups, sit-ups, and lots of stretching – until my brother Kris invited me to his gym.[4]

ROKO in Portsmouth was basically a giant, well-lit warehouse filled with (then) high-tech exercise equipment.[5] You had a profile set-up recording your range of movement on a given station and then from there you were on your own. You could ask for coaching or help from one of the staff but why would I do that? I’d turn on my music player and just pootle around for an hour every other day, going through my twelve or so stations. It was great fun and, on the way home, I’d reward myself with some chips.[6] ROKO ended when I got so sick I had to be hospitalised and ended with chronic fatigue. I also lost loads of weight, going from a healthy adult male to skeletor in the space of an evening.

I next attempted to climb the hill of physical fitness while living in Greenwich. That pretty much involved more of my old regime and a bit of shadow-boxing thrown in for cardio. It was very, very low impact because I was in no shape to do anything more. I like to think that this helped me recover better than I would have done but I never reached the lofty heights I had achieved at ROKO. This tailed off when I moved to Stoke-on-Trent. While there, I walked two hours each day to get to work, which I figured was exercise enough. Whether it was or not is neither here nor there.

It wouldn’t be for another three years, when I started at Nottingham Trent University, that I would resume the Sisyphean pursuit of personal fitness again. I joined a local gym about fifteen-minute’s walks from home and, once again, started to go every other day. This wasn’t as high-tech as ROKO had been, but was a bit fancier than the local gyms stuffed with hard bodied bros that comes to mind when I think of ‘local gym.’[7] This wasn’t as successful a time as going to ROKO; a combination of stuff that darkened my mood led to me not going as often, or with as much dedication, as I should have done. I stopped going to that gym after a year, though only because the initial incentive low-price expired and I couldn’t in good conscience afford any more.

Another period of laziness followed, which gave way to swimming. I’m not a strong swimmer and I didn’t learn to swim properly until I was in my early teens. The Lenton pool was a tiny little thing, in the abstract a representation of what a local community can do for itself, but my strongest memories are of banging my head repeatedly on the sides.[8] I remain unsure as to why I stopped going.

After graduation, my exercise turned back to the old standards of press-ups, sit-ups, and stretches. I also added, for the first time, jogging.[9] I would get up early and go for a run around the block. Much as now, it wasn’t anything a real runner would consider running, but it made me feel good, especially once I’d managed to actually do my whole circuit without collapsing dead. However, being unemployed does wonders for the mind and I lost my motivation.

About a month after moving in with Liam, I had a small epiphany and started exercising again, and a lot. I would get up at silly o’clock to do press-ups, sit-ups, stretches, and lifting. At that point in time, I didn’t have the money to buy weights so instead I stuffed some bags with books and lifted those instead. Much to my surprise/pleasure it worked. I started to beat myself in to some shape. I actually managed to beat the 100 press-up thing. Later, I started adding escrima to my regimen, buying a pair of sticks and proving myself a menace to my skull and masonry. That bout of exercise tailed off during my time in Lenton Manor, once again putting up with cold and misery sapping my will to keep in shape.

So, obviously, at this point I think it’s fair to acknowledge that to keep this good habit I am developing, I also have to own up to being a bit of an inconstant exerciser. With that in mind, I’ve been establishing to myself what makes for good exercise practice. Mostly, this is things I’ve gleaned from people saying motivational slogans at me as I lift:

  1. Have a goal. This is my own one. In this instance, I want to not embarrass myself when I dress up as Daredevil, even if it’s just in the privacy of my own room.[10] I think it’s important to have something tangible to aspire to, because you can compare yourself against it. This also applies to the structure of your work-outs – I have a timetable for increasing weight and reps for my lifting, so I can see how much I’ve improved.
  2. Finish strong! This one is from Kris. I don’t know if there is an actual fitness reason for this, but I’ve internalised it as a psychological principle. If I finish better than I started – so twelve reps rather than eight – I feel better about the work I’ve done, even if I am tired. It works for me.
  3. Don’t train yourself to hate something. I mentioned earlier that my exercise is low-intensity. This comes from something a friend of mine said, many years ago, about going from unfit to marathon runner: don’t do something until it hurts you, because all you are doing is training yourself to hate it and want to stop. Instead, keep it reasonable, keep it fun, and you’ll want to keep doing it.

So, with those three things in mind, I’m off to do some arnis. Maybe nobody will see my impressive Daredevil cosplay but at least my secret identity will be safe.

DareLuke

[1] All a bit moot now, mind. I was intending to visit Oop North for Halloween but Liam’s moved and Rob doesn’t want to do anything for Halloween. As yet, the RAF do not seem to ‘do’ Halloween. They’re big on Oktoberfest though. Must be the German connection.

[2] The only problems I ran in to: Tactical gloves are illegal and I would love to know how they made the actual Black Mask, because apparently Charlie Cox’s one allows you to see.

[3] Turns out, he needn’t have worried. That’s life.

[4] I believe I did go to the Gym with Jon once or twice as well. Suffice to say, watching Jon lift weights is an experience.

[5] Also free-weights, but I have never been fond of free-weights.

[6] I didn’t think of this at the time, but those chips were probably why I put on any muscle while going to ROKO. Fuel and that.

[7] I would like to take a moment to say I’ve found most gym guys quite friendly, though overly competitive. I’m just not that chatty when I’m exercising.

[8] I swim underwater with my eyes closed. I don’t recommend it.

[9] Perhaps, more correctly, gasping.

[10] Take that, Crime!

The Darkest Dungeon

Of late, I have been playing a game called the Darkest Dungeon. It is a side-scrolling Roguelike RPG, designed by a studio called Red Hook, and funded (in part) through Kick-starter[1]. It is one of the success stories of the current trend of crowd funding, in terms of both money raised and the product that is being delivered. I first became aware of the game’s existence through a video put together by Matt Lees, a videogame/web-media personality whose work I follow. I wasn’t part of the Kickstarter, I was given the game as a birthday present. It is currently available through Steam’s Early Access feature. I’d like to share my thoughts which are, overwhelmingly, positive.

First of all, and probably most importantly for me, the game is absolutely amazingly realised. I am of the opinion that there is a bit of a glut of Lovecraft-mythos inspired media currently out there, a kind of lazy embrace of Cthulhu and assorted monstrosities without any interrogation of the text. Similarly, the trend for ‘dark fantasy.’ To put it another way, given I did write ‘dark fantasy’ novella, I have developed in to a bit of a picky snob with regards to genre.

In The Darkest Dungeon I think these two themes have been stylishly represented and artfully deployed. The game is presented to the player in two modes: a washed-out township with a collection of decrepit buildings or, the meat of the game, 2-d side scrolling sprites arranged in order as they move from the left side of your screen to the right, tripping hazards and looting treasures along the way. A simple foundation, boldly realised. The art direction is amazing and evocative: the Ruins are gothic, there’s a slaughter-house vibe to the Warrens of the swine, and the Weald is the dark forest of traditional fairy-tale married to a Del Toro-esque fantasy vision. Everything looks grubby, worn, and a little close to breaking; the heroes look nearly as bestial as the monsters they face; and the simple colour shifts of the torch wash out the world in threatening reds and obscuring blues. This is accompanied by fragmentary narration by a nameless ‘Ancestor’ who warns and entreats in equal measure, a score that emphasizes the claustrophobia and creeping unease of the setting, and a sound effects palette that shifts from soft whispered squeals to reverberating echoes. An incredible amount of work has gone in to realising this setting.

Monsters hideous and peculiar

Monsters hideous and peculiar

I’ve never really played “Roguelikes.” I remember, vaguely, the original Rogue as something my older brothers probably played, but especially that my mum really liked.[2] That meant that, apart from a little bit of peripheral reading, I was not familiar with the mechanisms of Roguelike play – randomness, nonlinearity, the tendency for things to sometimes be just unfair. That is not to say I only play games with a preset structure – a current favourite is Crusader Kings 2 – but I’m more inclined to ‘save scum’[3] if I don’t get the outcome I want. That option isn’t available in DD, which means that I have to accept my losses as I progress. This has been emphasized by a particular conceit I have embraced while playing Darkest Dungeon: I have renamed each of my heroes to a family member or friend.

Or a nickname, on request

Or a nickname, on request

It is an odd little quirk to get you more invested in the characters, that tiny amount of customisation. You can do a similar thing in the 2012 X-Com game;[4] my actual first play-through of the game featured me renaming every recruit that of my friends and family, semi-prompted by the narrative of familial duty that the game presents.[5] This added investment, the tiniest of tweaks in customisation, added another layer to my engagement with the fictive universe: I wasn’t just some nameless inheritor sending strangers off to die, I was me, and the people fighting in the tombs were my friends. Yet the game itself exceeds the expectation of just naming your soldiers that the afore-mentioned X-Com offered. The heroes of Darkest Dungeon suffer for their travails, bend and break as they are exposed to danger and horror, and develop strange quirks of personality as a result of it. I think it is telling that, while the quirks that affect stats were the one’s that were most obviously detrimental, it was the traits that reflected personality that brought the characters to life and affected game play. One Graverobber was ‘Curious’, rifling through books and scrolls even as they further eroded her mind. Then there was the Crusader, a holy warrior, afflicted with Kleptomania; sometimes, against my wishes, he would open chests and pocket the treasure for himself

Meanwhile, in Hamlet...

Meanwhile, in Hamlet…

Even back in town, characters would refuse or require certain activities: the Highwayman who refused any comfort other than drink, or the Vestal who had been barred from the Brothel for her ‘Deviant Tastes.’ The band came alive with quirks beyond my direct governance. When, finally, the deathblows fell,[6] I had become attached to them through their habits as much as the names I had given them.

The center cannot hold

The center cannot hold

There are also, mechanically, so many little features of Darkest Dungeon, all geared to evoking the claustrophobic feel of the descent. Your characters are not just at risk of bodily harm; they have a Stress meter that endures between forays in to the dungeon. Gain too much stress, and your hero can break, becoming abusive or paranoid. Gain even more, and it could kill them.

All too much

All too much

Stress is gained in combat, but also from unexpected surprises such as finding a gruesome scene or reading a particularly troubling text. You have limited supply space when you go in to the Dungeon; your heroes need to eat, but how much will you bring? You need to plan for what you might encounter: tunnels to clear passages, or bandages to bind up cuts.

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Yet this all costs gold, and takes up space, reducing how much you can bring home from the dungeon. The money so spent is lost. That’s the core of the gameplay, balancing the risk of pushing on and losing everything, with the potential to gain more treasure. A tough fight might be winnable, or you might prefer to retreat when things go south. Unlike, say, a modern MMO where the only thing lost is time, in Darkest Dungeon you could lose a treasured Hero (and the investment they represent) as well as everything they were carrying

.Darkest Dungeon is not without flaws. Despite your heroes deteriorating state, there is no sense of urgency in the over game. It is a perfectly viable strategy to rinse through several heroes just to get gold and heirlooms. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the Occultist being locked in as mystic and coded as non-white.[7] There are a lot of bugs, from graphical glitches where objects, events, and even characters will be locked out; there is a consistent problem with crashes and lock-ups, and the game is not at all well integrated with the Steam Overlay. I had to turn off alerts of any sort, and frequently had to restart when taking screen shots.

For example

For example

This would have been a bigger problem without the constant auto-saving. I also think that the game’s difficulty could use some attention; the balance between the risk of exploring in the dark doesn’t feel that great, while the rewards are staggering. There are some abilities that just come across as emphatically better; I can’t imagine using any of the Hellion’s self-bebuffing abilities when other classes can do more for less; the Arbalist and the Bountyhunter’s Marks are both vastly inferior to the Houndmasters and the Occultist’s. There’s some need for another balance pass there.

It is an excellent, atmospheric game though. It achieves the tense feeling of a classic dungeon crawl without reference to complex placement. The music, art, and tone of the game draw you in; what at first seems a plea for help is gradually revealed as more of a protracted confession of wrong-doing. The little touches on the Heroes makes you feel connected with your favourites, even as you throw them again and again in to the jaws of doom. Each classes offers something a little different, a different strength that, it turns out, has a niche in the Dungeons. Build a party around Marks, build a party around Blight, or build a party that is so tough you can just wear the enemies down. I love the kind of real, tactical choice Darkest Dungeon offers, and more that it wraps it in a game so evocative and ridiculously beautiful. It is already amazing, and there is more to come.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

[1] Also involving the company Klei, who were behind the equally quirky “Don’t Starve.” There’s some commonality in the aesthetic of the two games.

[2] In fact, when I was chatting with her about The Darkest Dungeon, her face lit up as she said “So it’s like Rogue!”

[3] That is, quit and reload from an earlier point in the game.

[4] Which I also quite enjoyed.

[5] I made my exploits available to send friends through a private screenshot collection, some of which you see here.

[6] In some cases, multiple times.

[7] Though by and large the game is excellent when it comes to the diversity of the heroes. For most characters with visible faces, the tones vary dramatically. So good on Red Hook.

Jump

This week was one of many ticks on many clocks: My mum celebrated her birthday, my youngest brother came to visit, and another had his final day in the Forest before heading off on adventures new. Alongside a tea-party for my mum, we went to an activity centre to throw ourselves off a cliff. It was rather fun.

Of the people who went over the edge, three of us suffer a terrible fear of heights: Liam, Jim, and me. I think I’m not being too bold when I say mine is the worst: as we were walking up to the jump point, I found myself concerned that my dad and Jim, the brother who is leaving (now left), were walking too close to the edge of the path. They were a good six feet from it! There’s no helping being a scaredy-cat.

As there were seven people jumping, and the set-up only allows for pairs or solo jumps, one of us had to go alone. I was that lucky fellow, having resolved the matter with Jim in a quick game of Rock Paper Scissors. Because, as I said, I have peculiar obsessions, I can remember my strategy for my second draw which went: ‘Because I have gone scissors, Jim will not be expecting scissors again. Because he will not be expecting scissors, and will expect that I expect scissors, he will expect for me to go rock, so he will use paper, so I will remain with scissors.’ We both know of the Monty Haul problem, even if neither of us is proficient enough at maths to truly grasp it. The point was, I was jumping alone, and that meant I was jumping first.

At the embarkation point, we handed over both our entrant rubber bands, and our waivers to confirm that we were willing to accept injury and death were our own responsibility. The attendants helped me in to my harness – though they were reluctant to loop ties through anyone’s legs, a moment of modesty that felt a little absurd in the circumstances – and then I got in to line. Ahead of me were two boys, children, who had that air that children always have when they are doing something that might be dangerous, and so that danger makes it feel illicit. The rest of the crew came through. Dad danced a little to the Bob Marley that was playing. He may have been nervous; he’d never say.

I was. Liam reflected later that it would be easy to mistake me for a tough guy. In my combats and vest top, I certainly looked like I was trying for that role. I stood at the point of no return as the attendant tied me in to the harness. I made weak jokes which, no doubt having both heard them all and grown tired of them being repeated, he paid no attention to. It was probably for the best. “Lift your knees up when I ask you to” was all he said, as absurd out of context as not wishing to risk improperly groping my legs was within it.

I stood. “You can hold on to the rope if it helps you,” the attendant, finished tying me in, said. I did so, but it didn’t help. Inside, I reached for something to help me relax, to not take me away from the height but allow me to embrace it. And I thought: There is no emotion, there is peace. You can’t help but smile at yourself as, when confronted by your terrors, you find comfort in the dorkiest thing. But my name is Luke Spry, and if you think I haven’t heard a thousand iterations on Sprywalker then I don’t know what to say. I was named not for an apostle or a god, but a space farm boy from a film with a magic sword. I’ve been bought lightsabres regularly for much of my life. I was baked a Death Star cake for my birthday once. My Dad, when not dancing to Bob Marley, does tell me he is my father. Perhaps it is that, because it is fictional, there is nothing guilty about reaching for the Jedi.

There is no death, there is only the Force, I thought as I went over the edge. The wind buoyed me like a new invisible organ, a sense that carried the rattling wire through the rope I held on to. Then, I let it go. I reached out my hands, first left, then right, then both. I soared over blue waters and under blue skies. It is only seconds, but I am primed for time losing all meaning so it became a perfect and eternal moment, all just mine. I drifted, alone and at peace, arms out. One and the same and no longer there.

The Giants Below

This was written to take part in the Chuck Wendig challenge for 16 January 2015.

My writing prompt was:

YOU THINK YOUR CHARACTER IS COOL? MY CHARACTER IS A FUCKING

SASSY DWARF BARD FROM A WEALTHY VINEYARD WHO FINDS IT IMPOSSIBLE TO SPEAK TO GIRLS

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The Giants Below

Who is Cullen they all wanna know so I’ll tell you
An honest dwarf among princes and queens liars and thieves
That’s who I am that’s for what I stand
Cursed dwarf from the north here to speak forth
On the matter most pressing stressing needs addressing

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

I’m Cullen son of Barra who grew the vines
His father before him was Cira and before him Osheen
Back in stone one was known name of Mellan
Not the first of the clan back under the land his father Kevan
Who knew the older art our father’s far lost kin sang

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

My curse is such that I need verse can’t do no worse
When speaking when the queen’s in this scene
I got to rhyme got to flow to let you know
That I done wrong singing the old songs
Too late to reverse this fate that I know

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

My posse my homies my crew they’d tell you
That I’m stand up, I’m straight no need to hate
But they’re all dead now gone how that I need to tell now
Sigsig, Dieter, Olaf, Theimer all gone too soon
They was strong they was proud I sing it out loud

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

We were prospectors inspectors panning for gold
Story of our people since times of old
Back in those days we had our ways our says
Our secret wisdoms passed down with them
Were warning of the deep those mysteries to keep
Secret in life in strife we wanted to bring them to light

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

Boyhood dreams turn to bitter schemes wanting esteem
We’d go to our elders those who know us
And we say we want to find a way back today
Into those deep roads hungry for the motherlode
Honourable lies in avaricious eyes

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

Many a time my posse and me would travel so deep
And bring back riches envied by snitches and haters
But wealth bought with blood that ought be spent in love
Was squandered spilt made us ill and so back down
Into the dark into the deep no light to keep

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

We searched for days the many ways of the deep maze
Fools too blind to see in their minds only doom to find
For on those walls and in the halls there were the marks of tools
Drawing the bloody red hand drawn by the dead
And it’s known what the haunts mark their own

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

Something woke in the darkness spoke
Stone rumbling as we all went stumbling, tumbling
Down among the rocks we rose in shock
We had no time to breathe as the haints did not ease
They bring strife down on those with life

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

Drowning in corpses we had no pauses just a sureness
The best days were past, this fight was our last
But we wouldn’t give up couldn’t give up
Never our way like the stone we say we stay
Never leave a brother never forget another

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

Back on back hard fought attack
The cut and thrust, battle lust, steel trust
In the dark never flee, stand by me until light we see
That was the vow but I’m alone here now
My song shameful, my eyes tearful

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

I survived but none of my posse is alive
Sigsig an arrow through the eye, Dieter by axe die
Theimer to witchery that stole my voice, old Olaf gone by choice
To save me, keep me, so light I see
I’m no coward, I wanted to fight, to forget the light

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below

But they need me to sing, a warning bring
What was sealed because wounded stone won’t heal
We broke the gate and too late know our mistake
Now all hell can march through those arches
Who’ll see our faults fix our flaws to close those doors?

We grew up in the vineyard but fell so hard
Those boys with blood of iron skin of rust
Badass diggers the humans don’t know
They were the Giants Below