Sunday 31 January 2016

Brother Darius

I had a migraine yesterday, the first proper of this year. It meant I had to cancel our game (which sucked because I'm really enjoying Exalted and the slow reveal of the world and the GM's doing a fantastic job with the NPC's and with giving a foreboding sense of foreshadowing. If we're playing Pathfinder it's not so bad because there's more of us and we play at mine so if I need to I can lie down elsewhere for half an hour or whatever to get my head back towards the game, but that's less feasible with 2 players and someone else's house), but as it started to fade I learnt that Oxford University's Bodleian Library has released a colouring book of images from their collections, so I spent the evening colouring in instead, which was actually a lot of fun and a good distraction from the wibble of a migraine. And being me, as I coloured, I started to wonder who the people might be, if they were characters in a roleplay world. So here's the first.

This is Brother Darius. Not as he is, so much as he dreams of being: the priesthood he's a member of is as corrupt as it is good at hiding its corruption and there are only two ways to rise through the ranks: bribery, and blackmail, and either way it's dead (or disgraced...) man's shoes. Darius joined the order as a young teen. His family's poverty has kept his rank low, and he has spent the past couple of decades eavesdropping, spying, and otherwise learning enough about other members of the order and other major players of the region to make his play for promotion the next time an opportunity arises - and some of this knowledge could come in handy to a group of adventurers passing through town. At a price. Gold would probably do it, or a trade of information, or...

Darius is intelligent and hungry for promotion. He's not above engineering an opening in the hierarchy, but needs to do so in a manner that won't lead back to him. A more morally dubious party might be amenable to assassinating an opponent in return for information. But later, as he rises further, he may worry about what they know about him - particularly if they become notorious - at which point, he may decide it's time to do away with loose ends...

Sunday 24 January 2016

Farewell, Jareth

It's taken me a while to write this, because I'm not ready to accept it. But that's life and death and that's how it goes.

When I was toddler-sized, my favourite books were Spot's Birthday Party by Eric Hill, Meg and Mog by Helen Nicholl and Jan PieĊ„kowski - and Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. My elder sister recalls hiding her fear of the story in order to read it to me over and over again as only a toddler can demand, and I think it's her love for me that is why I loved the story so much: I knew if I was ever taken by fairies, she would, without question, be there to bring me home. I have never doubted that.

So move onward a few years, and I'm watching TV. I think I must have been around 8 or 9, because I remember it as being a large, colour TV and we didn't have a colour TV until I was 8. I missed the beginning of the film I was watching, this was long before the days of pressing a button on the remote (what remote?!) to see what you were watching, and we didn't have a TV guide. I was entrhalled, but I had no idea what film it was that had me so spellbound.

Fast forward to my third year of uni. I was home alone and bored, nosing through my housemate's dvd collection. She was a huge Bowie fan, and at this point my only known exposure to him had been the mother of my French exchange student asking "Iz eet pronounced 'Boh-ee' ou 'Bough-ee'?" so I'd been enjoying educating myself on his music. But it was the dvd shelf that stunned me, because there was a film there that looked so familiar. I was sure, but afraid to be sure, to the point my hands were trembling as I put it on. 

There was one scene I remembered most vividly: the Ida character and some goblin reaching a garden by climbing up a ladder and out of a flowerpot to meet a wiseman with a talking hat. Turns out I remembered it wrong: Sarah and Hoggle don't climb out of a flowerpot. But Labyrinth was the film that I had been seeking for somewhere around 15 years.

What I'm saying is, I was late to discovering the depth of the importance and power of David Bowie, but his impact on me was no less for it. I want to write one day about why Labyrinth is an important film ("You have no power over me"), but not today: Bowie is an amazing actor as well as a wonderful musician and the Jareth character is truly sinister, but today I wanted to talk about Bowie.

I find I still don't have the words. 

I was angered when I saw a newspaper headline (I think the Sun) "Shock Bowie Cancer Death". It was not a shock: Lemmy's death was a shock, but Bowie's we knew was coming. Or at least, I saw the announcement 18 months or so ago but no paper followed the story and I managed to convince myself it had been an internet hoax. Just because the papers hadn't realised how much he meant to the world didn't mean his illness wasn't known. I've been similarly annoyed by the people who say, on listening to his latest single, "It's like he knew he was going to die!" Well, yes.

Oh, but I know my anger is the frustrated anger of the bereaved. And as with Sir Terry Pratchett last year, I feel a bit weird that I'm feeling bereaved at the loss of someone I never met. And that makes me feel weird, because somehow I've always known I'd meet David Bowie, a conviction I can't trace the root of (unless it was in that long quest to find the film...) and I'd never lingered on the thought long enough to question it until now, but the convistion is strong enough I'm beginning to wonder if there is an after life.

He was able to fluidly change himself time and time again. He was an openly bisexual person in a world of very few bisexual rolemodels. He was gender fluid in a gender binary time. And that might not seem important to everyone, but representation does matter, and he didn't just represent: he was loved. Is loved. And the huge musiccal legacy he has left us is something I am grateful for.

I feel sometimes that it must help when the person you love who's died is famous. When people close to me have died, there's been this seismic shift in the world to which most of the world seems oblivious. Not so for Bowie. Not so for Alan Rickman (whose generosity in supporting young talent from poor backgrounds and his commitment to equality needs to be more widely known). Not so for the rather striking number of famous deaths since Christmas.

Does it help to know the world mourns with you?

I didn't know what Bowie meant to me until now. It doesn't seem true that I'll never meet him. 

Farewell, Goblin King.

Sunday 10 January 2016


Hope you all had lovely New Year's! Husbit & I went back to my uni town to see friends I don't get to see often enough. Rowan & Gem kindly put us and other people up, and their daughters did everyone's hair. We drank beautiful purple swirly liquid provided by another friend called Gems and had a lovely time.

On the Saturday evening, Rowan ran a game for 8 of us - a 9th player arriving late. Made me smile because I'd recently read Mark Knight's thoughts on running large games, which had made me think of Rowan's games. This was a bit of a "GM v Players" game, a race for survival. We started by picking a name and a career path out of Military, Engineer, Medical or "something similar" (police and scientist were the only two that came up). What came next follows, with usual embellishment liberties taken where I forget things.

My name's Jenny Blake. I'm an engineer. I'm also a fictional device telling a story, which means I sometimes know things, like what someone else is thinking or doing when I shouldn't be able to. I know it can be really irritating, but it's going to make telling this story a lot easier to tell so you'll just have to forgive me.

I awoke as I was travelling down some tube, carried along by this weird goo that I could breath. When the tube ended, I somehow kept my feet and in the faint red light I became aware of two other people, though I couldn't focus on them or hear properly or even move to begin with. Other tubes flushed and more people arrived in the room, until there were seven. The light by an eighth tube lit, but a second red light appeared instead of the green that had preceeded the others arriving. I could hear muffled banging from the tube, and someone found the handle that released the man inside. 4 men, 4 women. We all stood there shakily for a bit, until one person called out for lights and we could see each other properly: vests and underpants and covered in goo.  

The friendliest of the people who'd landed was as clueless as me, but said her name was Sally. We could see other tubes, most empty but around 10 with corpses floating in. Made me shiver. Someone suggested spacing them, which led to an argument about where we were. A tough looking guy said he could feel motion, like we were in some kind of vehicle. Sally commented that the tubes were "long range... long range..." "Stasis pods" I finished for her. That would definitely suggest we were on a spaceship.

I followed the man who walked to where I started to remember were showers: none of us knew much, but getting clean helped. When we were done showering, I instinctively went to my locker for my clothes and gear, finding a bag with a blow torch, a mini screwdriver and other tools of that kind: Sally had similar, as did Robert. The stern faced woman - Chun Lee - and the tough-looking guy - Johnny Steel - had fully charged energy weapons and their uniforms revealed him to be a private and her a corporal. Roberto Mackenzie was a policeman, with a solid-round gun. The last woman had a medkit, Robbie some kind of handheld assistance computer. As he struggled to get it to bring up the "grammatics" of the ship, I tried to hurry everyone to the canteen: stasis had made me hungry. 

The canteen was exactly where my feet led me. As we entered, a conveyor belt started up, with bowls holding blocks of jelly travelling along. Steel took a bite of it and a few followed suit. I raised an eyebrow and took my bowl to the tap: the hot water turned it into a filling soup. Eating made me feel a lot better.

It was decided we should head to the bridge. The computer had limited ability to communicate with us and seemingly had taken damage. The primary core was accessible from the bridge, so that's where we'd start. As we walked, someone heard a thumping noise. We froze and listened: footfall, but one leg was a lot heavier than the other.

The military pair and the policeman had their guns out - I guess the quiet of the ship must have spooked them, because this must be deep space and who else could be here? Sally evidently agreed with me.

"Hellooo!" She called, "hello?" 

The footsteps stopped.

"Identify yourself" demanded Lee: a figure rounded the corner, a large man with a nasty gash on his head. His military uniform was ragged, revealing a metallic leg. She lowered her gun. "Dave?!"

He had no better clue than us what was going on so we carried on to the bridge. From the corner of his eye, Robert thought he saw movement, but no one could identify the source. The blast shields were down and the computer was completely on the fritz now: we could see several small holes and one larger (some kind of meteor bombardment?) that had pierced the ship through into the mainframe. Investigating inside revealed the charred remains of the duty officer who'd been awake at the time. Sally, Robert and I realised the damage had been too sudden for the computer to kick to the secondary core, so Sally and I prepared to manually boot it while Robert was to stay on bridge to fix what he could here and to be ready for when we got the other online. Corporal Lee offfered to come with us for protection. The medic caught Dave and made him sit still while she ministered to his headwound, while the others prowled the bridge.

The three of us made our way through the ship, hearing strange clangs and bangs at intervals. As we neared engineering and the secondary core, the banging got louder. Sweet, cheerful Sally called out, assuming (as I did) more survivors. Lee rolled her eyes as she raised her gun.

"Is that your first response to any situation?"

"Of course!" She seemed surprised by my question, and returned to shushing Sally. Telling us to get behind her, she opened the door. I peered over her shoulder, looking for damage, trusting her to spot any danger. She did. A blur whizzed past us - she shoved me backwards as she threw herself out of the way. Poor, naive, sweet Sally stayed in the thing's path. With a scream, she fell. Lee fired a shot at the thing as it ran away, but the stun setting of her energy weapon did nothing. I ran to Sally as Lee whirled to check there were no more in the room.

Whatever the frig that thing was, it'd clawed Sally up pretty badly. I screamed for a medic, but the computer hadn't quite got comms online: up on the bridge, Robert was in the process of rebooting various systems, and it didn't take long for comms to arrive, but mine didn't seem to be working (I thought I'd brought it online when I shouted, but turns out I hadn't remembered exactly how to use it). It wasn't long, at least, before the medic was on her way with Mackenzie and Steel as support.

As we waited, I did my best to keep the blood and guts in Sally with my gaffer tape while Lee filled in the others on the beast, warning that it didn't respond to stun - and there might be others.

There seemed to be others. Halfway to us, Mackenzie stumbled. Steel and Ffion continued on, but he'd twisted his ankle and needed a moment to recover. Which is when he saw a dog sized creature with a  rough, metallic skin. Realising this must be what had inflicted so much damage to Sally, he reacted instinctively: "BAD DOG!"

To his surprise, rather than advancing the creature sat, cocked its head and whined slightly. He watched as it crept forward towards him, body language akin to a scolded dog. It licked the back of his hand and sat again. Over the comms, he let the rest of us know what was happening as the bright blue eyes glowed brighter and brighter and it emitted a whirring noise grow louder and louder, and its mouth opened to reveal, not the row of teeth of a normal dog, but instead a perfectly circular opening. It took his hand within and we heard his screams as the sharp edges took his hand off. The pain shook him back to sense: he raised his gun and fired into it until it fell back and stopped moving. He used the heated gun barrel to cauterise his bleeding stump. 

The medic continued to Sally as Steel swung back to help Mackenzie, arriving at the same time as a cyber-puppy. It sniffed sadly at the corpse of the larger creature, then turned to Mackenzie as he slumped against the wall. Steel shot it as it approached him, but the beam of his weapon (on the setting above stun) reflected back off the creature's shiny, metallic hide and hit Steel, who fell peeing and convulsing to the floor. Mackenzie shot the puppy and warned to use solid rounds only as the medic reached us.

Sally's breathing had been getting more laboured. She'd ripped away a length of the gaffer tape: I'd tried to restrain her, thinking she must be delirious, but her breathing was marginally better afterwards. Something about punctured lungs needing air. I don't know; I fix engines, not people. I know she coughed a lot of blood and gore over me. When the medic arrived I was still hovering, trying to help, so Lee slapped me round the face and reminded me why we were down here. I cleared the gore from me as best I could and turned to the engine, but even as I turned away Sally died with a whimpering death rattle. The medic turned on us, demanding to know how she'd been hit - had she been her usual naive, irritable, friendly self? Once she'd calmed, I finally had a chance to learn her name: Ffion. Lee handed us both assault rifles, including a spare for the medic to take back to Steel as she made to return to Mackenzie while I made a start on rebooting the secondary core.

Things weren't going too well on the bridge. The three there - Dave, Robert and Robby - could hear more impacts on the blast shields. Something finally penetrated and all three found themselves in danger of being sucked into space. Robby grabbed Robert and tried pulling him to safety, but when he reached the doors (which the ship had sealed when the breach was detected) and opened them, the new rush of air brought with it a fire extinguisher which knocked him unconscious. Robert managed to grab hold and secure them both, but couldn't move forward: Dave, with his greater strength, soon reached them but knew he could only help one, so let Robby go: he was speared on buckling bulkheads before being ripped through the side as Dave and Robert sealed the doors behind them.

The ship was screaming warnings at us now: hull breaches on several decks, unknown status on all others. Time to get to the escape pods...

They weren't too far from engineering, slightly further from Steel and Ffion, who'd just met up. Steel and I arrived first, maybe 100 yards ahead of Lee with Ffion further behind her. The pods only held three, so I'd have liked the medic to have reached mine rather than ending up with 2 gun bunnies, but at least I got away safely, calling good luck to Ffion as we left.

What I didn't know was that Lee had dodged one of the doggies as she raced down that last corrider - she'd spotted it in a side passage. Just after we departed, it jumped out and dragged Ffion across into the opposite passage, where it licked her face before opening its mouth to eat her.

Dave and Robert armed themselves and found Mackenzie on their way to the pods - he was struggling a bit with the pain, but being pretty badass nonetheless. Dave acted as rear guard while Robert and Mackenzie headed to the next pod - Robert spotted the dog as it turned its attention to them. He hit the door seal button, locking it and its puppies in the side passage and joined Mackenzie in prepping the pod. Dave reached them as they spotted a dog waiting on a chair. He removed his artificial leg and threw it. The dog jumped after it, but was only briefly distracted. Long enough for Mackenzie and Robert to get away, leaving Dave to fight it alone... it pinned him down, licked the hand holding his gun. One chance, he figured, and steeled himself to lose that limb. The perfect hole closed around his arm and he pulled the trigger... and nothing happened. He'd mistimed it: the arm was severed too soon. It howled, and a pair of cyber puppies came slinking to it.