Category Archives: Bubbles

What Am I?

The blow came from nowhere.

“Stupid Borrki.”

Another fist slammed into the side of her head, causing stars to erupt in the darkness around her.

“Stupid, stupid girl.”

A knee to the guts brought her to her knees.

“When will you learn?”

She pressed her hands to the ground and stood shakily, scrabbling at the cloth someone had wrapped around her head moments before the first strike.

“No.” Someone, Gerk from the sound of the voice, slapped her hands down. “If you like them so much, you can be as blind as they are in our cave, among the rubbish where you belong.”

Two hands shoved her in the back and she fell forwards, hissing in pain as the broken rocks of the floor cut deep gashes in her forearms.

“Next time, we won’t be as nice.” Gerk said, prompting a wave of high-pitched laughter from all around her.

She lay there on the cold, damp floor of the goblin’s refuse cave as the sound of footsteps gradually retreated and wondered, not for the first time, why her clan were so petty and small minded. There was a whole world of shiny things, and blind people, out there, ripe for the taking. Why were they so happy to stay in here, with their rotting food and mouldering rags, content to survive on what they could steal from travellers?

She hissed in pain again as she pushed herself to her feet, warm blood dripping from the wounds in her forearms.

Maybe the problem was her. Maybe she was the one in the wrong. No-one else wanted to leave the clan, to walk the wide world under the big sky, to talk to the tall folk and learn their ways. No-one else wanted to be better, to more than just a goblin.

She thought of the halfling, of the family he wanted to get back to, of the dreams he had.

No. She wasn’t in the wrong. Life was about growing, improving, doing things that mattered. It wasn’t about hiding and wondering when the next meal would be or counting down the days until the still was ready for emptying of the rough liquor they brewed.

She rubbed the blisters on her palms. No more would she do what they said. No more would she torture, would she burn her hands on the hot metal, would she make other living beings scream for the entertainment of the clan. It was time to do something.

She looked around, her eyes filtering the darkness of the cave around her into shades of grey.

Water dripped from the ceiling nearby before sliding down the wet side of a stalagmite. She walked over to it, arms outstretched, and enjoyed the burning pain as it washed the wounds there clean. Maybe this was what it felt like to become someone else. Maybe the old you, the one you didn’t like anymore, the one you had never wanted to be, had to be burned away so that the new you, the one you made and liked, could live. Maybe the years of insults, taunts and physical abuse had been preparing her for this day. Maybe it was time to become who she wanted to be, or to start on that path.

She sighed, her breath whistling through her razor-sharp teeth. There were so many maybes. The cave gave her lots of questions but no answers. The dark, as ever, wrapped her in its comforting embrace but remained silent. There would be no solutions here. Not for Borrki the goblin.

Something had to change, and it wasn’t going to be the clan.

It would have to be her.

The clan wouldn’t understand. How could they? They were goblins. All they knew was the thrill of the fight, the joy of knowing that they could overwhelm any threat to their safety through weight of numbers, the pleasure of hurting others before they could hurt you.

Small-minded, petty, vicious monsters.

Her heart thudded in her pointed ears.

Monsters.

That’s what they were.

That’s what she was.

But no more.

She would leave the cave. She would take her treasures, wrap herself in the darkness, and leave the cave. But how? When?

The others would come after her. They would chase her with knives, and skinning blades, and hot metal sticks. They would do to her what she had refused to do to the halfling. They would treat her as chattel, less than a goblin, less than the mangy dogs they kept for hunting and for eating.

She felt her stomach turn. She couldn’t do this. She was just one small goblin in a clan of killers. What could she possibly hope to do? It was hopeless. It would be better to forget these thoughts of escape and try harder.

She could be a goblin.

If only she tried harder, if only she tried better.

She looked down at her hands, at the bruises on her knuckles from where she had hit herself the previous day as she tried to make herself feel like a torturer’s apprentice.

No. It was too much. She couldn’t do this anymore.

She would either escape, and find who she was meant to be, or she would die trying.

*/*

The sounds of pursuit faded away behind her as she stumbled through the trees. The fire she’d set in the dog pen had spread far faster than her alcohol fuelled brain had expected. The rotten straw they used as bedding for the dogs had caught instantly and the dry wood of the enclosure had been smouldering as she ran.

She’d managed to grab the halfling on her way out, but they’d lost each other in the darkness, two small figures running on blind instinct and raw fear. She knew what they would do if they caught up to her. So, they wouldn’t catch her.

One thought pushed itself slowly through the haze of alcohol clouding her mind.

Who am I now?

She ran, her feet snapping dry wood at every step, her cloak and the cloth she had wrapped herself in to hide her goblin features caught at every tree branch. Animals fled from her and her breath began stabbing into her lungs.

Who am I?

She didn’t know. The dark sky, as comforting as the darkness of the cave, gave her no answers. The ground that threatened to trip her unsteady feet at every opportunity gave her no relief.

I don’t want to be Borrki anymore. Borrki is a stupid goblin.

The wind rushed past her ears, teasing her with half-heard words. Ahead, she could see the treeline, and the open grasslands beyond. The world waited for her to find herself. She could feel that it wanted to welcome her with open arms.

What aren’t I?

She slowed as this new thought fought its way clear of the strong goblin brew she’d had to drink to summon the courage she had needed.

A smile formed on her cracked lips as she reached the edge of the trees and took her first steps into a new world.

“I am Nott a goblin.”


I hope you enjoyed my personal, non-canonical take on Nott’s backstory from campaign 2 of Critical Role.

As with all fan ficiton, the intention was to honour that character and, as ever, thoughts, comments and criticisms are welcomed.

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Role-playing 112 – GMing Styles and Player Progression

Whilst the following article is aimed primarily at new GMs/DMs, the points raised here are ones that I have to remind myself of constantly. Before starting, I want to stress that there is no wrong way to GM and that nothing in this article is intended to be judgemental. Another thing worth remembering is that I don’t have all the answers, all the experience I draw upon to write these articles is solely my own, and your experiences may differ.

Now that that is all out of the way, my topic for this week is one I’ve wanted to write about for a while; common mistakes made by the inexperienced (and experienced) GM. It is a topic I will definitely be returning to in the future, but for now I will be talking about drawing comparisons to other GMs and expectations of player progress.

With the (frankly welcome) rise in popularity of role-playing games, and in particular D&D, on services like Twitch and YouTube, there is a wider awareness of GMing styles and tricks, and countless “Best Tricks for GMs” articles. Part and parcel of this is greater visibility for the GMs involved, usually people who prove to be extremely popular among their audience and who prompt people to begin GMing their own games. This is all well and good because a wider awareness of storytelling tricks and good practice can only improve the hobby, but with this increased visibility can come an increased pressure to perform to the standard of the GM onscreen.

This, especially for first time GMs, is nigh impossible in most cases, but can result in the GM feeling like they haven’t done a good enough job for their players. This is something that I am guilty of, and something that can adversely affect the game.

While there is nothing wrong with imitating another’s GMing style, and certainly there is nothing wrong in cherrypicking the parts of their style that you enjoy the most, it is important to remember that everyone has different strengths, weaknesses and styles. I know that, for example, voices aren’t my strong suit. While it is something I am working on, I try to focus to what I can do (create believable characters and a living world to fully immerse the players) instead of slowing the game down by doubting my abilities. That, really, is my best recommendation; try to accept that you probably won’t be good at everything your first time around, focus on what you can do to keep the game, and the story, flowing.

At the end of the day, the hobby is all about having fun, not comparing yourself to others. I cannot stress enough that every GM, and every game, is going to be different.

My second point is one that even GMs with more experience than I struggle with. Namely, expectations regarding player progress.

Sometimes, certain aspects of the game mechanics themselves will stymie game progress, but most often the players themselves will either breeze through your carefully crafted plot or get hung up on the smallest of details. The easiest way to deal with both of these problems is to prepare more than you think they will be able to get through in one session, even if it is just a rough outline.

For the former situation, this means that you have a good idea of where things are headed and where they can go next. Whilst for the latter, this means that you have enough material prepared that you can flesh out at a later date without worrying about running out of detailed plot.

In both circumstances, in my experiences, the ability to improvise and react to player choices is incredibly useful. This is almost entirely because you will never be able to predict which aspects of your game your players are going to pick up on and explore, so from time to time (or most of the time with my players) you will need to be able to elaborate on things without slowing the game down. That said, don’t be afraid to ask for time from your players. Explain to them that you didn’t have anything prepared and they should be understanding about the matter. You do have a whole world to prepare, after all.

On top of improvisation, having a vague idea of the direction the plot could take is always useful, as is having a good idea of what items might be useful later on. Both of these things will allow you to seed the campaign with hints that hopefully point your players towards future possibilities. One of the dangers of doing this is forcing the players in the direction you want them to go, so called ‘railroading’, as opposed to giving them agency so please be on the lookout for that.

Player agency is, of course, a very important part of the hobby and should be respected where possible.

Ultimately, the game you run is yours, no-one else’s. Find your own GMing style and experiment with preparation to find the sweet spot of prepared material vs. improvisation (Mike Mearls, one of the D&D team, has a rule of thumb that you should spend no more than half of the expected play time preparing material).

If you have any advice to offer first time GMs, feel free to leave it in the comments below.

 

The World and its People: The Bright Cliffs

I took a few weeks off for personal reasons, but I should be back to my regular update schedule for a few weeks.

This week I’m happy to present a deeper dive into the material I posted as my last update.

Enjoy!


The Bright Cliffs is a region of colonies many miles apart and treated as a single city. Covering almost twenty square miles, both at the feet and the top of the cliffs that provide its name, the Bright Cliffs is the westernmost settlement of the Starspire Forest. With a constantly fluctuating population and the closet of the Starspire colonies to the great Ozark Desert, the Bright Cliffs is home to a great many people, both forest folk and not.

At its heart, the Bright Cliffs is a trade centre and is one of the main points of contact with the world outside of the Starspire Forest. A regularly travelled off-shoot of the Ashen Way joins with the Desert Way about three miles from the Bright Cliffs’ borders and provides a steady stream of trade goods and other imports to the forest not suitable for Star-reach or Deephaven. For their part, the people of the Bright Cliffs are able farmers and carvers, providing many raw materials and hand-carved goods for the desert folk to make use of. Alongside the physical trade, the monks of the Dawn Rivers monastery have long been associated with the sun god and many pilgrims contribute to the local economy every year.

The Dawn Rivers monastery, built atop the Golden Falls at the confluence of both the Rising Light and the Rushing Wind (to give the rivers their names in the common language of the area), is a centre of learning and philosophy. Its archives hold records dating back millennia, preserved through carefully guarded techniques and revealed only to a select few. The monks themselves farm in several small clearings below the temple, sharing the land with the people of the village of Golden Falls, some two miles below them at the feet of the Bright Cliffs. Golden Falls, due in no small part to the monks on the cliff above, has been kept small and agricultural. Where many of the towns in the Bright Cliffs area are trade focussed and sprawling, Golden Falls is compact and continues to exist only through its people’s ability to grow and harvest rare crops.

The centre of the Bright Cliffs, if it can be said to have a central point in terms of commerce and administrative power, is the forest-folk town of Juriel’s Roost. Named for a mythical figure, Juriel’s Roost is a treetop enclave nearly three miles across and home to many artisans and scholars, as well as the region’s standing army. As the ‘city’s’ unique geographic layout presents a tempting target for many of the outlaws who call the Starspire Forest home, the Bright Shield (as the standing military force is known) maintains an active presence along the roads connecting the towns and villages that make up the Bright Cliffs and all its members are either veterans of the conflicts of years past, or recruits from other colonies within the forest seeking glory or experience.

The other town of note, the Shadowfort, is a fortified emplacement built to provide a last line of defence against the horrors that lurked within the forest centuries ago. Now, it is manned only by a skeleton guard and is host to a permanent caravanserai, its walls protecting traders and locals alike. Many of the goods traded from the Bright Cliffs come here to be sent on to the outside world, with the administrators of Juriel’s Roost maintaining a careful watch over all the trade that takes place here.

 

People

Greeter of the Dawn is the aged abbot of the Dawn Rivers monastery. One of the forest-folk, he gave up his birth name when he joined the order and has seen the monastery through many troubles. While many of his brothers whisper that he is due to step down soon and begin retirement, he remains full of energy and is an active figure in the local community.

Gerain Oakheart is the head of the Bright Shield, a veteran of the Thousand Glade War and a realist. He knows that his life has been spent in the defence of his people and that they will not reward him for his sacrifices. World-weary and tired, he wants nothing more than to lay down his arms and set up a small farm in one of the innumerable glades of the Starspire Forest, but there is always another matter that requires his attention.

Thalia Brasseye is a trader from the desert-folk who arrived in the Shadowfort one day and never left. She is currently an envoy for the administrators of Juriel’s Roost and has excelled in that position for many years, but there are whispers that she moonlights as an architect and has been helping to the build new fortifications and defensive measures to face an enemy no-one else believes is coming.

Merrick is a mystery. No-one knows who he is or where he came from. He simply appeared in the town of Shattered Glade one day and saved the town Elder’s life. Since then, he has risen to prominence within the town and has led many successful sorties against the outlaws who plague it. A few of the locals insist that he is a magic user, but no-one has seen proof of this.

Wandering Brook found her way to the reclusive village of Shadowed Ford and has been instrumental in protecting it from the monsters of the forest. An entertainer by nature, and a skilled swordswoman by experience, children of the village love to watch her regale them with tales of her derring-do and many of them have asked her to train them in the ways of the blade so they can better protect their village when they come of age.

 

Plothooks

The attacks on Shadowed Ford have been increasing rapidly and many of the villagers have begun to speak of abandoning their homes. The village council is willing to pay people to investigate the source of the attacks.

There are rumours of a demon worshipping cult in Juriel’s Roost. While they wouldn’t act against the city directly, they might move against one of the smaller settlements.

Thalia Brasseye claims to have spoken with a prophet who warned her of the monsters approaching the Bright Cliffs from the tunnels and mines in the area. While no-one yet believes her, a few miners have gone missing in recent months.

The Riven Stone, a local landmark, has started vibrating for no apparent reason. Locals who live near it speak of a voice that calls to them in their dreams. No-one has looked into this phenomenon, but several people insist something is hunting them while they sleep.

A monster from the dawn of time has been seen stalking through the gloom beneath the trees near some of the outlying villages. A call has gone out throughout the entirety of the Bright Cliffs for experienced warriors to track it down and dissuade it from approaching the colony.

 

 

Atlas Inspirare: The Starspire Forest

I’ve decided to start formalising the notes I have on my homebrew world of Thalen. As such, here is a brief overview of the Starspire Forest, found on the continent of Omnis, kept as setting agnostic as possible but hopefully still of interest.


The Starspire Forest has long been the site of a quiet struggle between the forest-folk who call it home, the outlaws who call it sanctuary and the primordial horrors which dwell beneath its leafy boughs, between the forces of the wild places of the world and those who would tame the ancient arboreal guardians of its secrets. For the most part, the struggle is bloodless, the forest-folk are content to remain in their glades and treetop cities, the interlopers stay hidden among the groves and caves that dot the forest floor and the creatures of the forest are kept at bay through the tireless efforts of forest-folk way-watchers and outlaw soldiers alike.

The forest-folk, a mix of native peoples and immigrants seeking a less civilised way of life, tend to the land with a skill equalled by few others and look after the forest with a reverential care. They are happy to receive guests, and to take in outsiders, provided an utmost respect for the forest is displayed. On the few occasions when their colonies and holdings have been infiltrated by people wishing them ill, their retribution has swift and left no survivors. Even the most reckless of the outlaws living in the forest quickly learn to live within the bounds the forest-folk set.

Most of the forest-folk live within Star-reach, a treetop city built in the heart of the forest. Visitors to the city are frequently awed by the wooden platforms the upper city is built upon, vast sections of wood seemingly grown from the trees around the buildings, none of which show signs of aging or decay. The lower city, cast in eternal shade under the overhanging structures above, is lit primarily by magical fire and is the main centre of trade and commerce within the forest. Several large caravanserai have been constructed around the natural springs welling up from the porous rocks beneath the city and a thriving merchant caste calls the lower city home.

Whilst many of the smaller colonies (as the disparate settlements the forest-folk have founded are known) throughout the Forest number their populations in the low hundreds, two exceptions exist. The Bright Cliffs, long home to a monastic order and named for the naturally luminescent flowers which grow upon the long ridge-line, is a conglomeration of settlements many miles apart that functions as one disparate city with trade and communication flowing constantly between its many factions. The other, the city of Deephaven, is a subterranean town built into the heart of a vast mining complex. Deephaven is well protected by natural defences but counts a large number of magic users among its standing guard.

For their part, the outlaws survive on subsistence farming and whatever they can steal from travellers on either of the main trade routes through the forest. The forest-folk, committed to their ideals of freedom, tolerate these thefts, but punish any excessive bloodshed or barbaric behaviour. Due the disparate nature of their backgrounds, the outlaws tend to band together in groups of a shared ideology, instead of along familial or racial lines, and it is not uncommon to encounter to two warring factions of outlaws fighting over the same caravan. Because of their reliance upon the trade routes for luxury goods, many outlaw camps and villages can be found within a few miles of the well-travelled areas of the forest, but all of them are protected by traps, pitfalls and (in some rare cases) powerful magic.

The largest of these settlements, Wilhelm’s Retreat, can be found 5 miles from the Ashen Way and is built in a clearing of the forest three miles across. Many of the smaller outlaw bands call this home, in return for tithing a portion of their food and spoils to the Master of the Hall. The Retreat is protected by numerous rings of traps, hidden guards, fortified walls, and mind-snaring enchantments and is virtually impenetrable without a guide.

Nearly 600 people call Wilhelm’s Retreat home, many descended from the now legendary bandit-lord who founded the settlement, and a rudimentary council has been formed in recent years to govern the peaceful day-to-day business of the town. There has been talk of creating a town watch to ensure the continued co-existence of the many groups within the walls but, due to loud public outcry, this has not yet happened.

 

Plot Hooks

The trees which support Star-reach have started to wither and die. Whilst the populace is being kept in the dark for now, if the problem isn’t solved soon, catastrophe is inevitable.

Something has destroyed the once thriving village of Golden Falls. The local forest-folk are worried that whatever did it will strike again.

Bandit activity along the Ashen Way has increased dramatically in recent days and survivors report their attackers having an almost inhuman strength and ferocity.

Travellers upon the Desert Way have reported strange, inhuman voices calling to them from the darkness under the eaves by the side of the trade route.

When a member of the forest-folk stumbles into Wilhelm’s Retreat demanding the fulfilment of their ancient oaths for some mysterious purpose, the council struggles to reach a consensus without sending agents to investigate.

Honey as Black as Night

Earlier this week, I managed to talk one of my regular gaming groups into letting me run Grant Howitt’s Honey Heist for them again. Due to a few reasons, we were down a few players and, as we’re currently between campaigns, we thought it would be a great one session game to pass the time.

The crew consisted of Sir Bearington III (a name given to him by the generous pupils of Leavington Primary School), a gentleman thief formerly of London Zoo, Paddington, a honey badger with a singular talent for sudden violence and [unnamed], a grizzly bear with a mysterious past who acted as the brains of the group. Their task was to infiltrate HoneyCon (held this time on Shaded Seal Beach, a small fishing village on the coast) and steal a rare jar of Black Orchid Honey. This honey was rumoured to possess magical properties and, they were informed, was not to be sampled at all. Any other honey they could find was fair game, and they were told to steal as much of it as possible, whilst avoiding the laser grids and poisonous gas that would surely be protecting the Con’s honey supplies.

The heist began with a reconnoitre of the venue. Shaded Seal Beach, the bears discovered, had multiple escape routes, a decent sized beach (the location of many of the Con’s tents), and a lighthouse on a small island in the bay. From their position atop the cliffs overlooking the village, they noticed a fête on the village square, as well as a collection of boats tied to a jetty behind a fence at the north end of the beach. More importantly, they saw a tent on the beach whose doorway was flanked by banners, each depicting a strange pillar with a dot at the top of it. Sir Bearington III remembered a similar symbol from his time at the zoo and it was agreed they could probably exchange “paper money and clinky money for paper” to gain entry to the Con itself.

As bears, they weren’t in the habit of carrying money, so Sir Bearington III had to resort to picking a pocket but they had soon gained entrance to HoneyCon, and even managed to find directions to the main honey tent by looking at the helpful ticket seller for an awkwardly long amount of time.

This tent proved to be the first obstacle to their plan.

Surrounded by boxes of honey samples, Sir Bearington III and Paddington began to glut themselves, prompting several nearby visitors to commence tutting and tapping their feet in annoyance (two signs commonly held to be the most extreme forms of conveying displeasure among the British). In the meantime, [unnamed] tried to get to the boats but was stopped by security. After a brief ‘conversation’, he learned that the long sheds at the end of the jetty were where the convention sellers were storing their honey, and that the Black Orchid Honey was being held safely on the island in the bay. With this mission critical knowledge in hand, he returned to the main tent and had to resort to causing a panic to get his comrades to stop eating all the honey they could.

After a hurried discussion surrounded by confused security guards looking for the bears that had disappeared from the tent, they decided that Sir Bearington III, being a strong swimmer, would swim around the fence protecting the jetty and steal a boat for them to use.

Unfortunately, he didn’t know to untie the mooring first but, after some delay, he managed to pull one of the boats towards the other members of the crew where they realised it would only be big enough for Paddington (a quite diminutive fellow) and one other bear. Sir Bearington III opted to swim again and began pulling the boat towards the island while [unnamed] slapped the boat’s oars against the water’s surface in an imitation of something Sir Bearington III had witnessed once. They made it halfway across the bay before they noticed the armed guards standing on a jetty on the island and Sir Bearington III dove under the water to hide his approach and climbed partly onto the island, waiting for the other two to cause a distraction so he could explore without fear of discovery.

It was at this point that [unnamed] realised his efforts with the oars had been for naught and he couldn’t use them properly. Luckily, Paddington managed to figure out how they work well enough to propel them slowly through the water, with [unnamed] looking out for rocks that could damage their boat or stop their progress.

Their distraction, upon reaching the jetty, didn’t go as planned, but ended in a spray of blood as Paddington tore through three of the guards present ([unnamed] took care of the other). The sudden violence and the sound of gunshots, however, did attract enough attention to them that Sir Bearington III made his way up the back of the island whilst they commandeered the security force’s launch and (unknowingly) piloted it to where he had climbed onto land, whereupon they dragged it up onto the island.

As they distracted the guards, Sir Bearington III heard a man call for the largest building to be put into lockdown, found a building entirely full of honey and snooped around another where it looked like many of the guards now on the jetty had been relaxing. He finished his exploration as the other two bears appeared around the corner of the largest building (from which came the sound of a lot of bees) and they briefly attempted to gain entry before the man who called for the lockdown noticed them. [unnamed] thinking quickly, and wearing a hat belonging to one of the dead security guards, managed to persuade the scientist to open the door for them, whereupon Paddington exploded once more into unprovoked violence and the man’s head was reduced to a pulp. After dispatching him, they lured the other man in the building (whom Sir Bearington III had heard talking when he first came upon it) to a swift end and then mastered the electronic keycard which controlled the main door lock.

With their means of entry and exit secure, it was determined that Paddington would don a spare bee-keeper’s hat from the uniforms hanging on the hooks nearby and enter the next room to look for the Black Orchid Honey.

Not only did he find a jar of honey (coloured the deepest black) he also saw something land on the net in front of his nose; a bee wearing a top hat and lace, fingerless gloves, before the swarm declared that “YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE COME HERE!”

Spooked, he ran for the exit, throwing the honey to [unnamed] in his panic. [unnamed], unable to resist temptation, opened the jar and tasted some of the rare honey at roughly the same time that Sir Bearington III also dipped a claw into the it and sampled this rare foodstuff. Both were instantly affected by the honey’s strange power and turned into goths (or, as Sir Bearington III’s player insisted when Paddington asked they were suddenly wearing eye-liner, “I’m trying to be a panda. It’s a life choice, respect it.”), a change Paddington was too busy trying to escape to notice.

As they realised that their short, but incredibly violent, friend was in a hurry to leave, a four-armed woman comprised entirely of bees in tiny top-hats and veils pushed her way into the room. Sufficiently motivated, the three bears made their escape (Paddington manage to snag some the Black Orchid Honey for himself) and split up.

Sir Bearington III and Paddington ran towards the building full of honey where they began filling whatever bags they could find with as many jars of the stuff as they could carry before heading for the boat.

[unnamed], in the meantime, lead the woman towards the guards on the jetty where both parties immediately forgot about the strange person (not at all a bear) wearing a stolen hat and started attacking each other. He heard the gunfire stop as he made it back to the stolen security boat and helped Sir Bearington III and Paddington to load the honey into it. It was only when they got it into the water and turned the motor on that they realised it had been damaged as it was dragged over the ground and the boat began to turn in circles.

This was the least of their problems, however, as it was at that moment that the four-armed woman stormed over the hillside and began flying over the water towards them. Thinking quickly, [unnamed] used the damaged rotor blades to direct a huge amount of spray at her, knocking the swarm out of coherence and sending them flying back to their hives, hundred of tiny top hats and veils falling into the ocean.

With Sir Bearington III pushing the boat towards the setting sun, the three bears shared a feeling of relief. They had made it.

They had successfully completed their heist.

The Feast

I won’t be here on Friday to update as normal, so here is this week’s update a few days early. I wrote it as a submission for a Cthulhu mythos themed anthology concerning Richard Upton Pickman and, as far as I know, I am okay to repost it here.

The following short story contains material some people may find disturbing/distressing. I apologise in advance if you are one of those people.


The painting unnerved him and he did not know why.

It wasn’t the colours, the Bosch and the Dali on either side of it were both darker and brighter.

It wasn’t the subject, he had seen many variations on a feast of excess in his travels.

It wasn’t even the provenance, because he didn’t know it.

There was just an air about it that unsettled him, an eerie realism that somehow crept under his skin.

At 6’2” and possessed of an athlete’s body, Martin Sherringham found few things truly disquieting, but he was beginning to wonder if he had made a mistake with his latest acquisition.

He had first seen it at an auction last year. The auction house was somewhere he visited often on his days off work and he had found many a surprising thing there. His wife’s wedding ring had been won on a whim, as had the mirror hanging in their bedroom.

It had caught his eye in passing and he had stopped to have a closer look.

Situated between two more contemporary paintings, it was the carved frame that had drawn him to it. Rather than ornate decoration and gold leaf, a simple geometric pattern had been carved into the stained wood. Although composed almost entirely of straight lines, it drew the eye towards the canvas like a spiral would.

The canvas itself was covered in dark, cracked oils and depicted a long stone table covered in trays of meat. On the floor around the table, people lay together, their faces contorted with pleasure, as a fire burned in a great, stone fireplace. In a doorway, half-hidden in the shadow cast by the stone frame, a lone figure watched.

He had spent five minutes absorbing every detail of the painting before leaving that day.

He had returned the next day, and the day after that. He had not been able to say why he kept visiting it, only that he felt a strange sense of ownership. When it had finally come up at auction, he had bid for it and won.

It was  then that the problems started.

The prior owner’s estate began contesting the auction, insisting they had never agreed to sell the piece. A lengthy discussion had begun that ended only when the auction house’s legal team got involved.

It was only then that it was discovered the piece had no name or provenance attached to it. No-one could tell Martin who had previously owned the painting, or where it had come from. The only clue to the painter was a signature in the bottom right corner; R.U.P.

A search of the relevant sources returned a few tentative names matching the age of the canvas and the oils but no-one knew for certain who the painter was.

By this point, Martin cared little for the provenance. The painting began to fill his every waking thought and he took to visiting it in the auction house’s holding room. Eventually, it was cleared for release and he had taken possession of the painting last week.

He had formally received it only hours earlier. For the past week, it had been subjected to a variety of tests and minor restorations. The process had been finished with a small brass plaque inscribed with ‘The Feast by R.U.P.’ that was affixed squarely in the centre of the frame at the bottom.

It was the plaque that he had been staring at for the past ten minutes. Something about its regular lines and ordered, perpendicular corners seemed to clash with the pattern on the frame. The plaque seemed alien and unwanted, as if it were somehow wrong.

He sipped absently at the drink in his hand and grimaced as the warm wine hit his tongue. It left a cloying aftertaste as he swallowed and he put the glass down to carefully lower the veil back over the painting. The thin fabric seemed to break whatever connection he felt to the work and he blinked slowly, as if waking from a day-dream.

The sounds of the house around him gradually filtered through his consciousness and he realised how hot he felt. He picked the wine up and gave it a cautious sip.

It was refreshingly cool and the crisp taste enervated him. He frowned slightly at it as he remembered what it had tasted like only moments before and then shook his head, dismissing the thought.

“Martin!” A voice called from within the house and he smiled, striding swiftly towards the doorway. He paused as he reached the threshold, one finger on the light-switch. Without knowing why, he glanced backwards, towards the painting.

For a single heartbeat, he could hear the sounds of the feast and see the light of the fire, muted by the veil but carrying through the gallery nonetheless.

As quickly as the sounds and light came, they went and he frowned in puzzlement before the voice called him again.

“Coming!” He replied, switching off the light and closing the door behind him.

The evening passed in a blur.

He ate, he drank, he relaxed and he made love to his wife.

Simone, for her part, noticed nothing different about her husband and contentedly fell asleep in his arms.

It was as he lay in their bed, Simone pressed against his chest, that Martin began to think once more about the painting.

Obsession was nothing new to him. It was one of the reasons he was so good at what he did. But this was new, this was something unfamiliar. Whereas usually his obsession was a compulsion, a clinical need for something, this was more of a desire. He did not need to think of the painting, he wanted to think of it.

As he closed his eyes, picturing ‘The Feast’ once more, he felt a fiery warmth brush his skin and heard, just for a moment, a gasp of pleasure.

*/*

Martin Sherringham dreamed.

He dreamed he stood at the top of a vast staircase leading down into the darkness.

A wide stone step rested beneath his feet and a cool wind pressed against him, as if trying to push his naked body down the stairs in front of him. His nudity surprised him, he could not recall the last time he had dreamt he was naked, but he accepted it. The carvings along the edge of the stone step were both familiar and strange to him at the same time, as if he had only a faint memory of them.

The wind carried voices with it, fragments of whispered conversation that filled his ears and teased him with half-heard secrets. He blocked them out and began to walk carefully downwards, his feet testing each step for solidity and balance.

He walked for what seemed to be days, growing hungrier and thirstier with each step, until he reached a wide stone hall. A fireplace lay in one wall, a pile of wood and coals stood on the hearth, ready to be lit and held back by a large iron grille. Opposite the fireplace stood a large wooden door, and between the two was a long table carved from some sort of dark, polished stone.

As he took in the room before him, he realised that the door stood slightly ajar. A figure stood there, watching him passively.

“Hello?” He called, standing on the last step and uncaring of his nudity. The figure didn’t respond.

Roughly the height of a man, it was cloaked entirely in the darkness of the doorway. Even though he couldn’t see its eyes, Martin was sure that it was watching him.

He took the last step, his feet finding the floor of the hall.

The wind behind him stopped abruptly and a fire burst into life in the fireplace. The stones beneath his feet radiated a pleasing warmth and he turned towards the figure again, hoping the firelight would grant him a better look.

“Hello.” He said, making out a hooded cloak draped over a humanoid figure.

“Eat.” The figure said, gesturing towards the table.

Martin looked and noticed that now it was set for two. A pair of candlesticks burned at either end and shed their light over a selection of vegetables and meats.

His feet made no noise on the stone and he sat in front of one of the place settings, his hands automatically pulling some of the food towards him. He looked up as he finished piling slices of meat onto his plate and started slightly.

Without making a noise, the hooded figure had crossed the room, filled their plate and started eating. Rough, dextrous hands ferried food from its plate to its mouth and two eyes glinted from within the shadows of the hood.

“Who are you?” Martin asked, his thoughts and voice tinged with an ethereal, dream-like quality. Absently, he understood that he was dreaming but the seat beneath his naked bottom felt more solid than anything he had ever sat upon and the food in his stomach warmed him as no food had before.

“I am merely the observer and the artist waiting for the right moment.” The figure opposite him said. The voice was deep, almost certainly male, and oddly gruff, as if the speaker had a problem with his throat. “It is not yet.” It stood and backed away from the table. “Until the next time.”

The hall around Martin shimmered and faded, leaving only an ache and a longing in the pit of his stomach. He moaned in his sleep as the taste of the meat on his plate faded to a memory.

*/*

The dream came again, night after night, for a month without change.

Martin became withdrawn as he began searching for the strange meat he ate in his dreams, the taste of it lingering long after he woke. Simone began to worry as her husband pulled away from her, his face becoming drawn and pale, their conversations becoming something that happened once a day if she was lucky.

It was two weeks after he bought the painting that Martin received the phone call.

He was studying an antique cookery book when the phone rang. He glanced at it and dismissed it almost immediately, turning his attention back to the recipes on the yellowed pages.

It kept ringing and he sighed in frustration, snatching it from the table in front of him.

“Yes.” He grunted.

“I know about the painting. I know its provenance.” The voice on the other end of the call said. “Meet me at Riordan’s in an hour.” There was a click and the caller hung up. Martin stared at it for a moment and then put it down thoughtfully.

Last night, the dream had changed. The wine in his glass, usually a crisp white had been a thick red. Riordan’s, he knew, served a wide variety of wines. Maybe there he would be able to find something to satisfy the craving he felt to drink that wine again.

Rationally, he knew that he would probably never be able to find the food and drink of his dreams, but there was a need growing in the pit of his stomach that he had to satisfy.

He stood and left his study.

“I’m going out.” He called to his wife. “I won’t be long.” As he moved through the house, fetching his coat and shoes, he felt energised. The past month was covered by a thick fog in his memory, but now his thoughts were crystal clear and he had a goal he could achieve.

Riordan’s was only half an hour away and he savoured the walk, enjoying the crisp air as it brought a blush to his checks. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed winter afternoons outside and he was smiling as he reached the wine bar.

The bartender returned the smile and served him the driest, darkest red they had.

He took the glass to a corner table and waited.

A young man approached him about half an hour later.

“Martin Sherringham?” He asked, his voice quiet and uncertain. Martin nodded. “Robert Upham. We spoke on the phone.” He pulled out the chair opposite Martin and sat, his eyes darting to the wine glass in Martin’s hands.

“The dreams have started.” He said quietly, his face paling. Martin frowned and pulled his glass closer.

“You said you knew the provenance of the painting.” The man nodded, his eyes flickering to Martin’s and then away again.

“Yes. It,” Robert licked his lips, “was painted by Richard Upton Pickham shortly before his disappearance. A friend of his owned it before being committed for hysteria, whereupon it ended up in a private collection for a number of years.” His hands, laid flat on the table, began to tremble slightly. “My father bought it during an estate sale. It was in my house for three months before…” His voice drifted into silence and he closed his eyes momentarily. “Before it happened. After that, my grandparents had it thrown in storage. When they died, it was sent to be auctioned in error.” He swallowed and met Martin’s eyes, his hands clenching into fists. “If I had been in a position to deal with the painting before then, I would have done so.”

Martin stared at him.

“Deal with it how?” He asked.

“I would have burned it.” Robert said. “That painting is evil.” Martin flinched at the passion in the young man’s voice, as if physically struck.

“It’s just a painting.” He said defensively. “Nothing more.”

“Just a painting?” Robert’s voice had become loud and high-pitched. “You’ve already been having the dreams, haven’t you? Next will be the cravings, they’ll sink their hooks into your soul and then the urges will start. You are lost at that point. LOST!” He giggled to himself.

Martin saw the bartender move to a phone hanging from the wall behind the bar and pick it up, dialling a three-digit number.

“When the urges have you, when you are so lost in dreams that reality ceases to mean anything to you, when you are lost to yourself and your family, you will do anything, ANYTHING, to satisfy them.” Foam began flecking at the corner of Robert’s mouth. “I saw. I saw what my father did. I saw what you will become.” His eyes, full of a manic strength met Martin’s and froze him in place. “I know what you will do. There is no forgiveness. No redemption. You must destroy it.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “You must destroy it to save yourself.”

Without warning, he fell from his seat to the floor and began to spasm violently.

After hours of answering questions from a variety of people in uniform, summoned by the bartender, Martin returned home and gratefully sank into bed next to his wife.

A part of him knew that Robert’s ravings were the product of an unsettled mind, but there was a small part that wondered if the young man had been telling the truth.

Were his dreams and the painting linked?

*/*

He dreamed again that night.

The staircase extended below him as it always did. Each step as familiar to him now as the steps in his own home.  This time, however, it seemed shorter, the journey passed far quicker and he was no longer wearied when he reached the hall.

The fire burned in the fireplace and his strange, nightly companion waited for him.

The table was laid for two, as usual, and he sat without prompting.

“Something is different tonight.” The figure said. “The dream-world reacts to you. See?” He pointed to Martin’s plate. Unbidden, a pile of meat rested there, rare and steaming. “You are Dreaming. The others who came here, they could not Dream. The time is almost near.”

“Of course I am dreaming. I’m asleep, like every time I dine here. All of this is a dream.” Martin said, his knife and fork carving a sliver of meat from his plate.

“No, my friend. These are the Dreamlands. They are as real as you are in life.”

Martin paused, his fork halfway to his mouth.

“You’re making as much sense as the young man I spoke to earlier. He claimed many things. Many crazy, impossible things.”

“Sometimes, the craziest things are the most real.” The figure said quietly. “I did not think I would ever reside here, waiting for the right moment, and yet here I am, night after night.”

Martin chewed thoughtfully.

“Why are you here? You are always talking about the right moment. What is it?”

“Do you remember what I said that first night? About who I am?” Martin nodded.

“You said you are an observer and an artist.”

The figure shook its hooded head.

“I said I am THE observer and THE artist.” It gestured to the hall around them. “Look around you. Does this not seem familiar? Have you not seen this hall before?”

The silence between them stretched into eternity as Martin struggled with what his mind told him could not possibly be.

“This is the painting I bought. I am dreaming about it because I spend so much time looking at it.” The figure shook its head.

“You are dreaming about it, because you will Dream it. Time works differently in the Dreamlands. I am a mere artist out of time waiting to paint; it is you who will set the scene. The others who came before you were forced to try to make the painting in the waking world, but you have the gift and so here I wait.”

“Pickman.” Martin whispered. The figure inclined its head.

“Indeed. All that you have seen in the painting, I will record for you to see in the painting.”

Martin swallowed some of his wine, the coppery, salty flavour pleasant on his tongue.

“Dream logic, for a strange dream.” He said. “I’ve not been eating properly and this is the result.”

“We shall see.” Pickman said as the hall shimmered and faded around them. “We shall see.”

*/*

He didn’t dream of the hall again for a while after that.

He went on holiday with his wife, who was happy to see the colour return to his face and the spark to his eyes, and buried himself in his work. He ate and drank carefully, ignoring the gnawing sensations in his stomach that constantly assaulted him.

He received word that the young man who had called him had escaped from a psychiatric ward some weeks earlier but had been re-committed and wouldn’t bother him again.

Life resumed a semblance of normality for a few weeks.

When he next thought of the painting, he remembered his idea to remove the plaque and decided that he would do it himself. It wouldn’t be the first time he had done such a thing and no-one else would have to touch his painting.

He took his tools into the gallery and unveiled the picture. He was drawn into it once more and noticed the familiar design carved into the hearth, the piles of food brought a memory of taste to his tongue and the people on the floor, lost in ecstasy, called to him. For a heartbeat, he longed to know the pleasure they were experiencing, he longed to lose himself in flesh and lust.

His eyes fell upon the plaque and the moment passed.

The screws affixing it to the frame came out easily and within minutes he had it resting on the floor by his knee.

He heard Simone’s footsteps behind him.

“I thought you might like a drink,” she said, placing a glass of wine on a nearby table. “Do you want me to take that for you?” She asked, motioning towards the plaque.

He smiled and offered it up to her.

“Could you put it in my study? I’ll find something to do with it after I’ve repaired the frame.” She nodded and reached out her hand for it.

He didn’t see what happened next, but she gasped and let go of the brass plaque. It fell to the floor with a clang and a line of crimson began welling along her fingertips.

Without thinking about it, he reached for her hand and kissed the wound.

The blood on his lips awakened a fire within him. A need for more of that coppery, salty wine.

“Martin?” Simone said quietly. “Can I have my hand, please? I need to wash and dress it.” He blinked and forced himself to ignore the desire in his chest.

“Of course. Sorry. I’ll…” His voice trailed off and he swallowed. “I’ll sort this out and check on you.” Simone smiled and hurried away, her bleeding hand cradled against her chest.

He returned to the gallery that evening after Simone had gone to bed and idly drew back the veil to stare at the painting. It called to him, on a level he could not understand or describe. It called to him and he knew that he would answer that call, sooner or later.

He felt the cravings growing once more in his stomach and, with a horrified shudder, covered the picture once more before going to bed himself.

He did not dream of the hall that night.

In his dream, Simone came to him, covered in bleeding wounds. He sealed each one with a kiss, savouring the taste of her blood, before they made passionate love to each other. The fire and ferocity of their union was unsettling but when he awoke in the morning, she was happy to accept his advances.

They lay together in the aftermath, her pale skin covered in bite marks. Something had driven him to bite her for the first time and the taste of her sweat-slicked flesh drove him to heights of passion he had only heard of as he remembered the taste of the meat from his dreams.

They slumbered in a blissful haze for the rest of the morning before life intruded upon them.

The day, for Martin, passed slowly. He did everything as if in a fog. His mind was constantly replaying the taste of his wife’s blood and flesh, the faces of rapt pleasure in the painting and the passion he had awoken with.

He returned to the gallery that night, intent on checking the picture one last time before sleep. He did not know why but he knew that he would gain a greater understanding of it if he did.

He had only standing been there for a few minutes when the realisation hit him that the faces of ecstasy in the painting could easily be faces of pain and that what he had taken at first for loving embraces could be something more savage.

*/*

That night, he Dreamed of the hall.

He stood in the centre, Pickman by his side.

“Now it is the right moment.” The artist said, withdrawing to stand in the doorway. “Tell me what you to see, Dreamer. Show me. Make it happen.”

Martin looked around himself, remembering the food on the table, piles of meat and goblets of dark, red liquid. He remembered the people on the floor and gave himself to the urges growing in his chest.

“Tonight, artist, tonight I dine on blood and flesh and pleasure!”

How to Role-play an Anxiety Disorder

I’ve written previously about my experiences as a role-player with anxiety, so the purpose of this article is to build upon that in a manner that will allow you to portray characters suffering from it in a sympathetic manner.

Before I start, however, it is worth pointing out that everyone is affected by their own mental health problems in different ways. The only anxiety I can explain to you is my own, and no-one else’s, and therefore may not be exactly how you have experienced it, or seen it experienced, before. It is also worth stating that if any of this makes you uncomfortable, feel free to stop reading at any point. Something else to bear in mind is that, like a lot of other mental illnesses, my anxiety, and how it presents, is rarely the same every time, as such this article is necessarily reductive.

To people who might stumble across this and think that I’m doing it for the attention, with the utmost respect, I am not. I am doing this to try and open a dialogue, to try to raise awareness of an invisible illness.

With all that out of the way, let us begin.

The first thing you should know is that for me, at least, anxiety is not a constant state. I have good days, days where my mind is clear and I feel like what I imagine a neuro-typical person to feel like, I have bad days, where I second guess everything I say and I do, and then I have REALLY bad days where I’m grateful for the fact that I work from home and can isolate myself with relaxing music and lose myself in my work or whatever I can find to watch. Usually, I can’t tell when I’m going to have a bad day, nor can I tell when I’m going to have a good day. My bouts of anxiety tend to come and go as they please, unbidden and unwanted. That said, criticism can trigger it, as can failure, or a perceived failing of myself. As an introvert with perfectionist tendencies, I can be overly self-critical which leads to a lot of self-doubt.

At the table-top, the best way to portray this would be to have a character who fluctuates through periods of ‘normalcy’ and periods of self-questioning. The trick is to find a balance between the two that feels slightly uncomfortable, but natural. The goal, of course, is to explore a mind that isn’t your own, but also it isn’t to make you, or anyone else at the table, uncomfortable.

Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that a small critique (whether from someone else, or something you criticise about yourself) can often snowball into something huge, something that could leave you paralysed with doubt if left unchecked.

How your character reacts to nagging self-doubt of varying degrees and gets over it (so to speak) is, ultimately, up to you. In my experience, validation from others helps, as does seeing proof of one’s own abilities. The former can be difficult to achieve for a few reasons, namely that when I’m struggling, I don’t feel like I’m worth anyone’s time, so I don’t talk to others much. This leads to me not being able to ask someone else if what I’m worrying about is actually something to worry about, or if there is something I have contributed that has improved their experience of the game/life. The latter is, obviously, far more concrete at the table, if your character succeeds at a task, or you roll well, your character is confronted with proof of their abilities. Ultimately, of course, what pulls your character out of the spiralling wormhole of anxiety is up to you, but to me, the source is usually external. It is not simply a decision I make to feel better.

It is also worth pointing out that the degree of anxiety I suffer from changes from ‘episode’ to ‘episode’, as does the length of time it lasts and the manner in which I deal/cope with it. When portraying anything like this at the table, it is important to remember that mental illnesses and their effects are extremely mutable and frequently do not occur in the same manner twice.

As examples of this, my anxiety can present as a feeling of unworthiness, a feeling of isolation, a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of futility and the most annoying (to me, at least) a feeling that everything I create has been done before and surpassed by others. I can handle a lot of negative emotion because I’m used to it at this point and have created reasonably effective coping mechanisms, but the latter feeling takes everything I am proud of about myself (my creative abilities) and throws them out of the window.

I suppose, to sum everything up, criticism (whether real or imagined) can cause an intense self-doubt (an umbrella term) that lasts until external forces influence your mental state (or until your mental state balances itself out, because that can also happen).

I should also note, before finishing, that my anxiety also presents as a form of pessimism, a constant worry that something will go wrong. For me, this is related to social matters (i.e. I’ve offended people so they will stop interacting with me) and cleanliness (i.e. I wash things obsessively to avoid illness and try to stay away from cooking raw meat among other things). Both of these things can lead to irrational behaviour and panic attacks but are harder to portray without being a stereotype. That said, if you want to portray behaviours like this, I trust you to do a sympathetic job.

So what do you think? Does this align with your experiences of anxiety? Does it help you to portray this nebulous mental illness at the table? Or have I completely missed the mark? Let me know in the comments.

By the Campfire

The road from their last camp had been tiring. The halfing hadn’t shut up the entire time, the two humans reminded her unpleasantly of her father’s enforcers and the half-elf… there was something about the half-elf that both attracted and repulsed her. She was glad, therefore, when they set up camp for the night and the halfling wandered off with their guide to find firewood, wittering away about the carrot soup his mother used to make and asking if any of the local herbs would be good in it.

“I’ll find some food.” The taller of the four women, Sonja, muttered, dropping her pack on the floor and stalking off into the night.

“So will I.” Muse turned as the half-elf crept away, reading a desire to be alone in every muscle of the young woman’s body.

“So that leaves us, I guess?” Muse said, a smile playing on her lips as she reached for her pipes. “How about I play a little tune to get you in the mood for cooking, Chef?”

Telari, a brusque human woman who, as far as Muse could tell, didn’t know how to smile had distinguished herself as a cook the first night they had made camp and hadn’t taken well to Muse’s nickname. She glared at the young tiefling and sat down, her legs crossed and loose robes arranged comfortably around her.

“I’d rather you didn’t.” Her voice was stern and uncompromising. “Meditation is easier when it is as silent outside, as it is inside.”

Muse shrugged, her tail flicking idly from side to side.

“Suit yourself.” She slid her pipes back into their pouch and drew a dagger from its sheath instead. The dark metal drank in the light of the setting sun and she started to sharpen it, rubbing the whetstone along the blade. She whistled quietly to herself as worked, a sea shanty she had heard once on the docks of Zazesspur.

She heard Lovefoot before she saw him, the halfling’s voice carrying easily on the still air.

“-and that’s how Mr. Crabapple lost his chickens.” Their guide grunted. “Anyway, I’m hungry. Let’s get this fire lit so I can cook something.”

Muse smiled widely as she saw Telari stiffen slightly. The monk opened her eyes and stared at the halfling in horror for a fraction of second before standing.

“I was thinking I’d make a stew tonight.” She said. Lovefoot thought for a second and then nodded.

“Okay. I’ll save Mrs. Halfthorn’s recipe for a rainy day.” Telari nodded and began laying the fire.

There was a quiet footstep behind Muse and the young tiefling flinched, turning to see Myca approaching, the edge of her tunic lifted to form a pocket of sorts. A few nuts fell from the pile of whatever was in there as she walked past.

She watched the half-elf move with an awkward grace, her profile striking in the rays of the setting sun, and then returned to her dagger, finishing it to her satisfaction before sheathing it with a flourish.

“Thirsty work, hunting.” A clear voice called out from the encroaching darkness as Sonja strode into the firelight, a brace of rabbits over her shoulder. “Where’s the wineskin?”

Muse reached into her pack and pulled it out.

“Catch, your Ladyship.” She said, throwing it to the statuesque woman.

Without breaking stride, Sonja caught the wineskin, pulled the stopper out with her teeth and downed a mouthful of wine before dropping the rabbits to the floor next to the intricate wooden structure Telari had built. Wisps of smoke began drifting in the air and the monk walked to her pack and pulled out some pots and small leather pouches which Muse knew contained her supply of herbs and salts.

They watched the fire grow swiftly as a light breeze picked up, and sparks began dancing on the air around the iron pot nestled in the flames. Muse volunteered to collect some water from a stream Sonja had noticed nearby and when she returned, Lovefoot and Telari were in a heated discussion about the correct amounts of basil and thyme to drop into the rabbit stew.

She noticed Myca was sitting slightly away from the rest of them, her brow furrowed and her teeth worrying at her lower lip.

“She’s not cut out for this.” Sonja said quietly, her usual ebullience missing from her voice. “She’s seen some horrors, but the open road and the desert? They aren’t in her blood. Not like they’re in yours and mine.” Muse looked at the red-haired woman, surprised by her insight. Sonja shrugged, the metal scales sewn into her clothes jingling slightly. “Mercenaries have to be able to know who they can trust in a fight. I look at you and I see the open road, a wanderlust that can’t be sated, and a darkness, a willingness to do what must be done. But her,” she gestured at Myca, “I see the forests and a desire to belong, for family. This isn’t the place for her.”

“Maybe not. But I think she’ll surprise us all. There’s a steel there, a resolve I haven’t seen in many people.” Muse smiled, her pointed teeth glimmering in the fire light. “Besides, the road has a way of dealing with the weak.” Sonja grunted and moved to sit by the fire as the argument began to die down.

“I believe it’s your turn, Muse.” Telari said absently as Lovefoot skipped away from the fire, whistling a nonsense tune to himself.

“Hmm?”

“To tell us why you’re here.”

“Oh. It’s not really an interesting story.”

“Nevertheless, we’ve shared our stories.” She said, gesturing to Sonja with a long-handled spoon. Muse sighed and pulled out her pipes.

“I’m doing this my way then.” Sonja laughed.

“I’d expect nothing else, tale-teller.”

Muse blew a few, eerie notes on her panpipes. A slow stream of smoke and cinders fell to the ground as the notes faded and three orbs of lavender light emerged as the smoke dissipated, floating to revolve slowly around Muse’s neck. Her skin took on a violet hue as their light combined with the fire illuminating her lavender skin.

“I don’t know my parents. I grew up on the streets of Zazesspur, far away on the coast to the north. A city of elves and men, one such as I was frowned up. Bearing the mark of a devil,” the orbs split up and drifted to float around her horns and balance on the tip of her tail, “and living on the streets, my opportunities were few and far between.”

The orbs moved slowly back to her throat and sank into the skin, forming a line of light from her clavicle to her jaw.

“So, I learned to sing and tell tales, to dance and to smile, to play and to charm. An honest urchin can live more consistently than a dishonest one. I was not rich, but nor was I poor.”

The balls of light pulled together in her throat and drifted outwards to become a humanoid shape, roughly as tall as an adult male.

“One evening, as winter drew in and the nights turned cold, Marvolo found me. The master of a travelling troupe, he needed a muse, an inspiration to bring cheer to his players once more. I became his Muse. I learned the ways of the road, the songs of many people, the magic of the stage.”

A tear fell from her quicksilver eyes.

“Until the day tragedy struck. Marvolo’s right-hand man, a man I trusted as a brother, betrayed me. I heard them arguing in the dead of night. He intended to sell me to a thief-lord, to be used as a pawn in some unknowable game.”

The orbs separated and turned a violent crimson, two floated to Muse’s eyes where they burned brightly and the third sank into the tip of her lashing tail.

“I am no-one’s pawn. I am not a toy to be used by others. I am my own person, now and forever more, until the Nine Hells freeze over and the Abyss swallows us all. So, I ran. I took everything I owned, and I ran.”

The lights faded as she blew another series of notes on her panpipes, the cloud of cinders and smoke dripped again in a caliginous mass from the ends of the pipes and wrapped itself around her throat. When she spoke again, her voice boomed in the still night air, her tone ominous.

“I ran to Seawell, I ran to my future.”

Café Diem

First off, I admit the title is a terrible pun, but this is my website and I can call the articles whatever I want.

Secondly, I’ve done some re-arranging of the site navigation, and it’s hopefully a little easier/less cluttered now, if you have any thoughts or opinions on it, please let me know.

Anyway, onto the main point of today’s update.


Just under a year ago, I started DMing a 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign in my local board-game café (Sugar and Dice) and, over that year, I’ve noticed a few differences between running and playing games at home, versus doing so in a public environment. Today’s update will focus on a few of those differences and how I cope with them. As ever, if you have any thoughts, or criticisms, feel free to leave them below.

Right off the bat, the most immediate difference is the noise level. Being in a café, albeit one where everyone is there for a similar reason and not just to have a discussion or an argument, talking loud enough to be heard over the activity from nearby tables or the sounds of playing pieces hitting the board can sometimes detract from the game. Certainly, for someone like me, someone who is unsure of their ability to accurately portray voices or the subtler nuances of description, having to concentrate on being loud enough to be heard takes away from my confidence to try different voices and more atmospheric scene setting.

In order to get around this, I tend to focus on what I’m good at (accents and speech patterns) to convey different character types and personalities. By doing that, I’m able to give a performance I am happy with and portray the disparate characters that make up my world, whilst also immersing my players as much as possible in the game.

The second problem caused by the noise level is player engagement and focus. With so much distraction around, I’ve noticed that my players appear to struggle with focus sometimes. I know that I do when they are discussing their next steps, which naturally leads to clarifications and wasted time. Part of how I deal with this is trying to speak louder and slower. My default manner of speech is quiet and fast, which is something that is less than ideal in the café environment, so I’ve made it clear that I’m happy to repeat things as needed, but something I’ve started trying to do is maintain eye-contact (not something that comes naturally to me) as well as switching my focus periodically to other characters, or to the group as a whole.

The other problem linked to this, certainly with D&D, is visualising combat. I’m typically someone who enjoys the theatre of the mind aspects of encounters, despite my aphantasia, because I’m more interested in telling stories of awesome action and flashy combat, instead of accurate positioning and ranges. The problem with this is that because the noise level can hinder player focus, when my descriptions aren’t good enough, or a player is distracted by something nearby, the flow of combat gets interrupted by clarifications or questions about the preceding turn. I’ve taken the obvious route to get around this by using a battle-map and miniatures (one of my players made Lego minifigs of the PCs, all of which are amazing) to help provide a visual aid during combat and I usually end up using my dice to explain positioning out of combat when my description is lacking, or if the players don’t understand what I mean.

On the other side of the equation, however, is the community of the café itself. Most of the time when I’m running my game, there is at least one other session running nearby that I can half-listen to for story or character ideas, or just to help improve my morale as a DM. But more than that, I know that if I have any questions about rules, there is usually at least one other DM nearby that I can ask about their interpretation of a situation or edge case scenario or get their opinion on a custom monster. And finally, of course, there is no real shortage of players if I need a guest spot for a single session, or want to mix things up for a short time.

So, while DMing in a café certainly has its drawbacks, by focussing on your strengths and adapting your usual approach to running encounters, you’ll find the community aspect of playing in a more public environment has hugely beneficial effects.

I may return to this subject in a future post, but for now, I hope I’ve been able to give you some insight into the unique problems surrounding playing rpgs in a café setting.

Prophecies of the Elements

Here is a selection of prophecies to inspire your own story hooks in whatever tabletop rpg you are playing, or to provide an ambiguous plotline for you to incorporate into your own games.

I would be interested to know what you, or your players, make of them, so please let me know in the comments.


 

When the sun burns green,

And the trees sing in an unknown breeze,

A faceless man will bring a rose from the East.

When he reaches the tower and gifts the rose to a woman of unmatched knowledge,

The winds of the Great Plains will sweep over the land and bring plague with them.

*/*

At the dawning of the new age,

An age of blood, steel and smoke,

A child will be born.

To her, will the secrets of the Ancients be given,

To her, will all the skill of the Children of the Stone be taught.

When she is of age, a great calamity will befall the house of Hask.

Only a gift of the earth, purest of the many Azure Crowns, will save it.

*/*

As the sun and the moon meet,

As the seas fall calm and the animals sleep,

As the plants in the field wither,

He shall come unbidden.

A stranger, cloaked and playing a lute,

With hair of fire and tongue of silver.

He will charm all who see him,

And destroy all who follow him.

He brings the cold, cleansing fire of death.

*/*

There is a cave in the middle of the world,

A mouth of broken stone and trailing plants.

A bear lives in the cave, her fur matted and hide scarred.

The world-bear carries the weight of the world on her shoulders and guards the fortunes of all.

At the height of its powers, a great empire will challenge the moon for supremacy of the night.

It will win, and the moon will fall, shattered into a hundred pieces.

As it dies, the seas will rise and wash into the cave, drowning the bear.

My vision sees nothing more,

Save a bear skull bobbing on a tide of blood.