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(Friday Fiction) The Wayfarer House

Gaming 150Now that the 20th anniversary edition of Changeling: the Dreaming has dropped, it’s time to start re-establishing the setting! Hooray! C20 updates the Kithain for the modern world, progressing the story from the classic World of Darkness and cleaning up a lot of the squishier ideas that never quite got hammered out in 2nd Edition. 

Going back to Baltimore got me thinking about what modern-day Changeling would look like in the Duchy of the Chesapeake. Here’s a first pass at an idea for a freehold in the heart of West Baltimore.

It didn’t matter how early you got up in the summer; the day was going to get started without you. That’s why the sunlight was already glinting off the candy wrappers and smashed bottles in the street at 7 in the morning, and why the crickets were already sawing away when Kevin stepped onto his front porch. It wasn’t hot yet, but the insects were warning him already — “Brother, you’d better find some shade in a few hours so you don’t melt.”

Kevin really hated mornings like this one. You couldn’t even enjoy it because you had so much to do before the sun got too high. Neighbors were breaking the unspoken rule that you just didn’t start lawnmowers before nine because they knew now was the only time to do it. Down the block, he could hear Mr. Gordon puttering away on that ancient gas cutter; there was a weed-whacker going one street over; in the distance, someone was taking an electric trimmer to their hedges. The drone of the motors told him the same thing the crickets were, and it made the morning feel urgent, almost panicky. It riled him.

He sat on the railing and watched the neighborhood. There weren’t a lot of people out, but the ones that were moved with purpose. After the sun beat every living thing back to their pockets of shade, the block would be live with people jawing and fanning themselves on the porches. People would go visit each other, especially when a pitcher of lemonade or sweet tea came out, but that was all the movement you would see until the sun went down. Even then, it’d be too hot to do much besides cook a little something or play a quick game of basketball. This day, like so many in July, would be a long, slow torpor punctuated by brief sprints of movement before all of your energy was sapped again. These few hours were all people had to feel like people; it wouldn’t be long before it was too hot to be in the house without an air conditioner, and who could afford one of those?

So people were out, walking to the corner store, or watering their plants, or getting to the gas station or liquor store a few blocks down the road. The only people who were just sitting on the porch were him and the girl across the street at the Hotel.

It was just a house, but everybody called it the Hotel. As far as Kevin knew, only three people lived there — an ancient old lady with glasses that made her look like some kind of beetle; a short woman who never stopped moving or talking, who could go from laughing to murderously angry as fast as you could blink; and a girl, about his age, who carried herself like an honest-to-God princess. The three women had a ton of people over at their place all the time, though. Some were fairly regular, but most weren’t. The only white people Kevin ever saw that weren’t on TV or at the mall were at the Hotel. They would come out on the porch in the evenings and chat, with plates of food or big glasses of something alcoholic probably, and while the faces were mostly different it seemed like all three of them knew every single one.

Kevin had always wondered what was up with the Hotel, but his mother told him to mind his own business when he asked. The women never bothered the neighbors, despite all the traffic, and the neighborhood left them alone in kind. But that didn’t sit right with him. People around these parts were mostly quiet, and mostly private, but everybody still knew everybody else’s business. Nobody knew anything about the women at the Hotel, and nobody seemed the least bit curious about them except him.

He looked up and down the street, but there wasn’t anyone unusual coming or going. It almost never happened, but the girl at the Hotel was completely alone.

Without thinking about it, Kevin got up and walked across the street. He stopped at the iron fence, his hand hovering on the latch. Something in the back of his brain told him that he probably shouldn’t just walk into somebody else’s yard uninvited. So he called up to the girl watching him from the porch.

“Hey. Can I come over?” He instantly regretted asking like that. He was seventeen years old, not seven.

The girl looked at him, her chin held high. Then she looked away and down the street. “I guess.”

Kevin pushed the gate open. The metal wasn’t iron, but it sure looked like it; it was lighter, though, and cool to the touch. He stepped through it and up to the steps while the gate swung shut behind him. “My name’s Kevin. I, uh, live over there.” He pointed to his house, across the street and one lot over.

“I know where you live, Kevin.” The girl was looking at him again. From his spot at the bottom of the stairs, she actually did look kind of royal. She was in a cheap plastic chair, but it might as well have been a throne. “What do you need?”

 

“Nothing.” Kevin smiled, unsure why he was so nervous. “I just wanted to say hey.”

“Oh.” The girl seemed almost disappointed. “Hey.” She looked down the street again, and suddenly broke into a smile.

Kevin stared at her. She was one of those Erykah Badu types, always in form-fitting dresses or pants that looked expensive, hair wrapped in a scarf all bundled up tight. Today’s outfit was a sleeveless dress that was emerald in the shade but a glaring yellow in the sun. Her headwrap matched, and somehow she managed to get long earrings with (probably) fake pearls jangling around a single emerald. She looked pretty tight. Her family must have had money. What did they do in that house?

She looked back his way and he quickly focused on the stairs. He looked back up at her when he thought it was safe. “So what’s your name?”

She looked at him for a moment, like she was judging him. Normally Kevin would have been offended, but here he just felt exposed. “Why don’t you come up on the porch? I’m not going to stab you.”

“I know that.” Kevin smiled again, trying to be friendly but just looking nervous. “I just didn’t want to be rude or nothing.”

“Oh. I said you could come over, though. It ain’t rude to come up on my porch after I invited you.” She looked down the street again. “My name is Tefir.”

“Tefir?” Kevin swirled the syllables around in his mouth and decided he liked them. “What’s that mean?”

“That’s private.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Kevin tried to make out what she was staring at down the street. He thought he saw some lightning bugs in a little swarm, but that didn’t make any sense. It must have been a trick of the light.

“It’s OK. Nothing wrong with being curious.” She smiled at him. “What does Kevin mean?”

“I don’t know. Probably king or something.”

“So you’re a king then?”

“I didn’t say all that.” Was this girl making fun of him or something? What was he doing here? “Just…you know…something cool, like, this big deal that you can’t live up to.”

Tefir laughed. “Not with that attitude. I don’t know what Kevin means either, but I bet it means something like ‘bold’ or ‘seeker’.”

“Yeah? What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know, just a feeling.” Tefir sat back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. “How come you never asked to come over before now?”

Kevin shrugged. It felt like he was sweating, but it wasn’t hot enough for that. “You always have company.”

Tefir checked him with her eyes. “Yeah, we do. But they’re friendly. I know Ma wouldn’t mind fixing you a plate if you wanted.”

“All right, I’ll come over then.” Kevin heard himself say that before he thought it through. It would be a little hard to explain that to his mom. “Who are all these people who come over, though?”

Tefir shrugged, then looked down the street. “Just some of Ma’s friends is all. She’s been all over, so she knows a lot of people. She gives ’em a place to stay when they’re in town.”

“Yeah? Was your mom in a band or something?”

Tefir laughed. “Naw. Military. Uh, kind of. But she retired and settled down here. I think she misses going different places, but at least different places can come to her now.”

“Doesn’t it feel weird having all these strangers in your house?” Kevin tried to imagine his mother having company every day, and couldn’t see any way it didn’t end with somebody getting killed.

“Mm-mm. It’s fine. I write letters and send emails to people all over the world. I can go anywhere and know that there’s somewhere I can stay if I need to. I like that.”

“So you want to travel?”

Tefir shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I might get my mom’s old job, so I’d pretty much have to.”

Kevin blinked. “I can’t imagine you in the military, though. They wouldn’t allow headwraps.”

“Religious exception.”

“You’re Muslim?”

“No.”

“What then?”

“You wouldn’t have heard of it.”

“Some African thing?”

“Something like that.” Tefir snorted. She looked away from the street and at a corner of her porch, then laughed.

Kevin followed her eyes and screamed. He could have sworn there was nothing there before, but a giant lioness sprawled out in the corner now, so big her forepaws were just a few feet from him though her back was against the railing some twenty feet away. Her tail thumped the porch noisily and she startled at the sound. She rose up on front paws as he scrambled down the stairs; to his amazement, she looked surprised.

“Teffie,” the great cat said, “I think he can see me.”

 

“What the fuck?” Kevin felt like there was a rock in his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. He looked back at Tefir to find that she, too, had changed.

She was taller than before, her bearing regal, almost statuesque. Her skin was a perfect mahogany, and her eyes…her eyes…

They were huge and black, with white flecks inside that swirled and twinkled as he stared. They looked like the sky at night, a milky swirl of stars bending and straightening like a whip cracked in slow motion. They were beautiful and frightening and impossible. Kevin couldn’t look away, but he had to run.

His heel caught air instead of the ground as he tried to back down the steps. He tumbled into the dark before he knew what happened.

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2017 in RPGs, Writing

 

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(Friday Fiction) Changeling: The Talk

Writing 150Our protagonist gets a name! I’m still feeling out how being a Changeling would feel in inner-city Baltimore. I think there’s something distinctive about the idea and I’d love to try and capture it. Here, Mr. Foster takes our narrator to McDonald’s for an explanation of what’s going on. Or not.

I don’t know if I’ve ever really SEEN the McDonald’s at Walbrook Junction before. I’ve walked past it all the time, and it’s always been the same place since I was a kid. The outside is the same fake stucco that covers the entire crumbling strip mall, and the inside is this big, open space that is way cleaner than it should be for the neighborhood but still choked with the smell of a generation’s worth of fryer grease and industrial cleaners. The tile is old, the walls are peeling but scrubbed clean, and the chairs are so worn you wouldn’t know foam was in the seat. I had always thought it was a dump, like everything there, even if the owner gave a shit about it being clean.

That was until I went in there with Mr. Foster. When he picked me up at my house, it was in a car that was twice the size I had remembered it being. The dashboard was covered with weird knobs and words in another language, but he drove it just fine. We cruised through my neighborhood, and it was like I was seeing everything for the first time. The trees were bigger and greener. The abandoned house looked like it was alive, sitting back from the street with its mouth wide open like it wanted to eat you. There were rats and cockroaches playing double-dutch on the sidewalk.

Walbrook Junction looked mostly normal, except for that McDonald’s. It was a castle with — I shit you not — an actual moat around it and banners flying and everything. When Mr. Foster walked up to it, a drawbridge just appeared. When he opened the door, one of the old mascots — the bird with the yarn hair — curtseyed and greeted him like he was a visiting noble. “Good afternoon, Sir Baobab,” is what I think she said.

Everybody seemed to know him. He walked up to the counter and the worker there stared up at him. Mr. Foster is a tall dude, but…he was really tall here. His Afro scrunched against the ceiling, and you could hear the horns coming out of his forehead scraping against it. His skin was unnaturally black but kinda brown, like molasses. And his hair was white with little flecks of black in it. That’s not how Mr. Foster looked before. And I had known him for like, five years now.

He ordered two quarter pounders with cheese, two Big Macs, a 20 piece Chicken McNuggets, and the biggest Coke they had. I got a double cheeseburger and a McChicken, then some fries and a milkshake. I don’t know why, but it felt like I had to keep up with him. The way everybody was acting around him, it made me want to live up to something.

We got our food, and he wasn’t charged for it. He told the cashier where we were going to sit (at a table in the corner) and he said “I’ll make sure you aren’t disturbed.” Before we sat down, he took a lima bean out of his pocket and put it on the chair. It sprouted immediately, and a new chair made of vines formed over it, sized up for him. He caught me staring, but he just pointed at me to sit down.

Mr. Foster tore up his food immediately. I couldn’t stop looking around. There was a five-foot squirrel dude mopping the floor and wiping down tables. Every once in a while, a rat walking on its hind legs would walk up to him and he would chitter at it or something, and then it would go off and pick up trash or put balls back in the ball pit.

I’ve been seeing shit like this ever since I got mugged. It’s still straight-up crazy to me, but with Mr. Foster it was the first time it felt like it was a kind of crazy I could live with.

“What do you want to do with your life?” When he spoke, he demanded you listen. He had that kind of voice.

“Uhm, what?” I was distracted by the squirrel-dude, and caught off guard by the question. What did that have to do with anything?

Mr. Foster leaned in and rounded his shoulders. There was a table between us, but I still felt trapped. “I said, what do you want to do with your life?”

I stared at him for a long minute. My mind went blank. Was I supposed to know what I wanted to do with my life when I was just in high school? Wasn’t that what college was for? I reached for anything I could think of, the first thing that came to mind.

“I want to cut hair.” I felt so stupid right after I said it. Mr. Foster lifted his eyebrows, but otherwise he didn’t react.

“Why?”

I shrugged. “It’s cool to just be able to talk to people all day while doing something nice for them.”

Mr. Foster nodded. “You know how to cut hair?”

Oh shit, I didn’t even think of that! I shook my head quickly. “Naw, but I can learn. It looks like something I can get pretty good at.”

“Yeah, you think so, huh?” Now he seemed amused. But not in a way that made me feel bad. “You just need some clippers and a YouTube video, right?”

“Maybe a head to practice on or something, I don’t know.” I returned his smile without knowing why. None of this made sense. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about the fact that all kinds of impossible shit was happening all around us right now? That we were in a McDonald’s that suddenly looked like a castle? That he was some giant unnaturally-colored dude that seemed to pull a lot of respect here? Why were we talking about hair all of a sudden?

“Listen, I got a few friends who could use a haircut.” He shifted in his seat, and the whole thing groaned, vines and all. “I’m going to bring a clipper set over to school tomorrow. It’s yours. And in two weeks’ time, you’re going to come to my house and cut hair. That’s how you’re gonna pay me back. Deal?”

“Uhm. Deal.” I glanced at a small group of rats that seemed to be arguing about a mess on the floor. They were squeaking at each other in these high voices that made it hard to make out what they were saying. “But shouldn’t we be—?”

Mr. Foster put up a big hand to stop me from talking. “You’ll get to talk all you want in a couple of weeks. But if you have questions, you write them down one at a time on this.”

He made a motion like he was sliding something to me across the table. It didn’t look like anything at first, but when I looked down there was a piece of paper there. It was thick, like a page out of an expensive journal or something, colored yellow-brown with all kinds of spots in it. It looked awesome. Too good to write on, even. I gathered it up and slipped it in my backpack, not really sure what to say. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. You write the question, and I’ll see it. I’ll write a response, and you’ll see it on that slip of paper.”

“How?”

“Magic, that’s how.” The look on his face let me know he was giving me a big secret. “It’s like untraceable email, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.” I still felt weird about all of this, but kind of comfortable. “But what if my parents find it or my sister starts snooping in my room?”

Mr. Foster shook his head. “They won’t see it. Only folks like you and me can. If you want to know what I mean by that, that’s your first question.”

He got up all of a sudden, and it looked like he was going to smash right through the ceiling. But he didn’t. “I’ve got to go, but I want you to know two things. First, you’re not crazy. You’re special. Second, if you ever feel like you’re in danger or this is too much to handle, you come here and ask a cashier to get me. I’ll come as soon as I can, OK?”

I nodded. I didn’t really like it, but I nodded.

“Good.” Mr. Foster grabbed my shoulder when I stood up and squeezed it. “You’re a good kid, Marvin. It’s going to be OK.” He stared at me with those weird blue eyes of his until I believed it.

And then he drove me home.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2016 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Friday Fiction) Changeling: Emergent

Writing 150It was my first day back in school after the mugging, and people were treating me surprisingly well. I guess word had spread about what happened, which was cool, but what was most interesting was how the story changed based on who told it. The teachers talked about how I nearly got away by telling a story about this little Br’er Rabbit figure I had, which is true — I made it up on the spot because I didn’t know what else to do, and all that fear and anger and desperation just came out of me in this huge rush. It felt great. It made me dizzy, and sick, like I was high af. I couldn’t remember what the story was if I wanted to.

If you talk to my classmates, though, they’ll tell you how I started “acting crazy” after the first punch was thrown, speaking in tongues and all that. I was pointing to things that weren’t there, and having conversations with myself, and got in a fight with thin air. The people who attacked me were so confused that they were about to run off until I clocked one of them real good upside the ear. Then they jumped up and beat me down.

That’s true, too, but I don’t like to talk about it.

I’m adopted, and my mother was institutionalized for being a paranoid schizophrenic. When I was in the hospital, there were a lot of doctors who told me that I “had taken a pretty good blow to the head” and to let them know if I started seeing things that weren’t there. I couldn’t tell them that my room was filled with balloons of all sizes and shapes, that somehow managed to change color right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t tell them that these had been brought to me by a bunch of creatures that couldn’t exist — rats in waistcoats, or CPR dummies that told me where all the good drugs were, or an elephant that liked to be the size that would be most disorienting for you. I knew where that road lead, and that was one I wasn’t going to take.

So I pretended everything was fine, and I got pretty good at living a double life. In one of them, I was the victim of a violent crime recuperating from a possible concussion. In the other, I was this storyteller that every imaginary friend in the hospital would come to for advice or jokes they could take back to kids in other wings. I have no idea where these stories came from; it was like there was some doorway inside of me I could access now, and it all came spilling out. I really liked that feeling, and that disturbed me. I knew that I was getting whatever my mother had, and it was only a matter of time before things went bad.

I really did think that would be my first day back in school. There was so much going on I could barely keep it together. I saw a dragon on the roof, casually muttering to itself how these “insects couldn’t appreciate” the value of its own personal “hoard of knowledge”. I think it might have been the mascot for our football team. I saw trees gossiping to each other about who did what and when. There was a tiny bus that my mother nearly ran over, taking rats and squirrels right up to the building. The sky was made of rainbows, a feverish ripple of color that never stayed the same thing. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but it was also terrifying.

My aunt thought that I was nervous about being back in school after my whole “incident”, and I was fine with letting her believe that. The walk from the car to the front door was the longest walk of my life.

How do you tell someone that your mind is broken forever? I knew, deep down, that whatever this was wasn’t going away. If I sat down and closed my eyes and told myself that none of it was real, the colors would fade and all of this madness would get harder to see. But it made me feel sick. I was pushing that door of stories further and further away every time I did that, and there was some different part of me that fought against that hard. When the visions came back, they were more intense than ever.

So I was sitting in homeroom, trying to ignore the squirrel seated next to me in a little desk, chattering away about how excited she was to learn about American history from the tree out in the quad. The other students either came up to me to ask if I was all right, or snickered at me for being crazy. I was just getting calmed down when Mr. Foster walked into the room.

Mr. Foster is one of those guys that everybody in your neighborhood knows. He’s been at Highland Park High School forever and taught Social Studies to an entire generation of people around the block. He lived alone, and hung out with a bunch of people way younger than he was, and he had this thing about swords. We started calling him “Ghost Dog” a few years ago, and the name just stuck. He was a tall dude with an Afro and a 70s moustache. He wore a trenchcoat like he was Shaft, even in the summer. He was an awesome guy, but he was easy to make fun of.

At least, until now. He ducked under the doorway and pushed himself into the room. At first, he looked like he always did, but then there was this weird snap, like electricity popping. Then he was eight feet tall and blue, with these little horns and ridges coming out of his forehead. The coffee mug in his hand was this this hammer as big around as my chest. His trenchcoat was this steel suit of armor that shined like lavender when the light hit it.

I startled, and Mr. Foster looked at me. He sputtered, and then stared. He flickered a couple of times, back and forth between the old teacher and this monster dude. But then he stayed there. A rat on his desk asked him who the new kid was, and Mr. Foster flicked his hand like he heard it.

When all of the imaginary rodents at the edges of the room piped up with a “Good morning, Mr. Foster!” and he grunted in acknowledgement, I knew that he was seeing and hearing the same things I was. And I have no idea how that’s true.

But if I was crazy, then so was he. We shared the same visions. And if he could somehow live his life outside of an insanitarium then he had to teach me how.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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(Gaming) Finding My Path

Gaming 150The first game I ever ran was a Changeling: the Dreaming campaign way back in high school. My players were an eshu, satyr, redcap and sluagh, and somewhere in there I ended up crossing things over with The X-Files because I was young and didn’t know any better. Do you remember those metal spikes they killed people with by stabbing it into the back of their necks? It was cold iron given to government agents to snuff out faeries. Yeah. I know.

I’ve run sporadically since then — mostly Dungeons and Dragons in its various incarnations or Pathfinder. This latest campaign was an old idea that I dusted off and spruced up, thinking that I would finally get to tell it right this time. I quickly discovered, though, that Pathfinder can be just as crunchy with numbers as D&D, thank you, and that if you don’t really understand the system home-brew rules will seriously fuck you up.

My players are a bunch of wonderful people — they’re smart, creative, passionate and fun. I’m not ashamed to admit that there is a huge amount of performance anxiety around running something for them. I want to do something that makes one friend feel like a bad ass, gives another friend the chance to explore psychological terrain he finds interesting, provide another friend with the political drama he’s discovering an affinity for, and let another friend find an ingenious way out of a difficult situation. All while keeping a whole set of rules and story beats in my head, improvising characters and plot details on the fly, and struggling to keep track of what has happened, what needs to happen, and what CAN’T happen. Running a tabletop RPG is really difficult you guys, especially if you have good players.

I’m also not ashamed to admit that I often let that anxiety get the best of me. I’ve snapped at players once or twice for trying to tweak their characters to maximum benefit when really, that’s just how they find enjoyment in the game. I’ve taken feedback badly, and let constructive criticism blow my perception of how poorly things were going out of proportion. I take storytelling very seriously, and perfectionist tendencies, chronic anxiety and an unfocused, disorganized ADHD brain is quite possibly the worst mix of traits to tell an improvised and collaborative story with people who are in all likelihood way smarter than you.

Now that I’m diving back into the pool, I’m trying to ease off the idea of telling a perfect story. I’ve learned a great deal about the way the story delivery mechanism influences what works best, and with tabletop RPGs I’ve found it works best to keep things a bit simpler. We’ve trained ourselves to think medieval fantasy has to have these sprawling, complicated worlds with rich societies and a gigantic number of characters, but when you’re getting together with a bunch of friends for six hours once a month there is no way people can hold these little plot and story seeds in their heads. Dense, sprawling mythologies work well in stories that are a bit more permanent — TV shows, novels, even movies. But I’ve found they work less well when you’re basically sitting around a campfire.

The direct approach tends to work better. The immediacy of creating the story around the table lends itself to scenes and situations that grab your emotions by the throat. The games that are most memorable and fun are the ones where you have a bad guy you clearly hate, a tough struggle that you barely make it through, and a reason for triumph that’s personal and reaffirming. The patience required to lay down a complicated story, brick by brick, is better spent parsing how characters can grow, change and excel within the confines of the system and the world you’ve built. Making sure your story is clear enough that your players know the next thing they need to do and why they need to do it goes a long way towards making sure they can get invested in what’s going on. Shadowy figures and mysterious conspiracies work for a few games, but at some point there needs to be clear progress and a strong sense of momentum pulling the characters from scene to scene.

So what I’ve focused on with this latest attempt at verbal storytelling is crafting scenes that make for fun jumping-off points for the characters while having hooks that appeal to my players or at least their characters. It’s been fun taking the metaplot, distilling it down to a series of actions, and then breaking up those actions into progressable goals from scene to scene. It makes the skeleton of the story strong but flexible, capable of carrying us all along but bending to suit the needs of the people around the table.

I’m so nervous about running this weekend, but really excited as well. I can’t wait to put what I’ve learned to use and see how I’ve progressed as a storyteller. Wish me luck for this Saturday, folks!

 

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Fiction Friday: Veniamin Makes His Mark

Writing 150Part two in a set of stories about Veniamin Kovalenko, the detective/fixer I’m playing in a Dresden Files RPG. Ryan very astutely noticed that I am hesitant to throw my characters into conflict, so I thought I’d work on a situation that pushed Veniamin a little further then “Oh no, will he like this delicious cup of coffee?” It turns out, I had a lot of fun with this — expect to see him getting pushed around a little more often!

Veniamin wasn’t sure if the man he was following had spotted him or not. He had made sure to keep a respectful distance, look as casual as possible, even stare down at his phone every now and again. Still, he was closer than he would have liked to be. He couldn’t help it — his night vision wasn’t too great, and the scents of downtown San Francisco were so overwhelming they made his nose useless. He was just going to have to rely on his weaker senses for this one.

The man walked with his head down and collar up, obviously trying to render himself invisible, trying to pass himself off as just another person shuffling his way from A to B. His gait was long and true; he walked with a confidence and awareness of his surroundings that marked him as someone who knew a thing or two, if you knew how to read body language. Venimain did. His family expressed themselves largely through movement, and over time he developed a sixth sense for that kind of thing.

He slowed down and looked at the phone he held in his hand when the trenchcoat half a block away shifted and the hat above it turned in his direction. This was a residential neighborhood, one of the few that non-technical workers could afford at this point, and it would be obvious that there was nothing of interest for him here. He doubted his mark would believe a feinted look around, at a street sign or one of the barred doors that kept residents safe this time of night. So he scrolled through his apps without looking at them, trying his best to keep his ears trained on his quarry.

After a few seconds, he looked up to see the trenchcoat break into a run. He cursed under his breath and tucked his phone into his pocket, taking a step in pursuit.

Another man appeared in front of him from an alley. Veniamin stopped short to avoid running into him. Before he knew what was happening, the man pulled a gun from his short leather coat and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet punched his shoulder and spun him to his right. He felt the joint crack, then his arm go numb. As soon as he realized what had happened, he felt his senses go dim — like his nose had been stuffed with cotton, like he was listening to the city underwater. The slug burned the blood that had welled up around the wound. Silver. This guy was using silver bullets.

How did he know? Veniamin had just enough time to think this before he dove behind a set of stairs. Another bullet whizzed past him; he could feel the displaced air ruffle his hair. He fell back into a forward-leaning crouch by instinct. He had only bought himself enough time to prepare for the next attack.

He leapt as soon as he saw the man in the leather jacket round the short flight of wooden stairs, crashing into the center mass with his good shoulder. His long legs provided good propulsion, and he had put on enough weight since coming here that the impact would be more than enough to knock this guy off his feet. Veniamin tried to ignore the way the jolt reverberated through his wounded arm, or the feel of another shot grazing his arm just above the elbow. It opened a line of broken skin that blood welled and seared along the edges.

Veniamin’s momentum carried him and his attacker into a parked car, which rocked under their combined weight a moment after he heard a window shatter behind him. The bullet that had just missed him went wide and into someone’s home; if the sound of three gunshots weren’t enough to get someone to call the police, the sound of breaking glass almost certainly would.

“Stop firing!” Veniamin hissed. He tried to pin the man against the car with his good shoulder, but his momentum made it easy for him to be rolled off to the right side. He flipped until his back was against the car, adjusting his weight to make another leap at the man. Probably sensing this, Leather Jacket took a few steps back and swung the revolver up into the space between them with both hands.

Veniamin stopped. He might be able to rush this guy, but not without taking another bullet. The pain had settled into a deep throb that rung through his clavicle, down the numbness of his right arm and forced tension in his neck and jaw. He wasn’t sure if he was light-headed from the sensation or the lack of blood. He was sure he didn’t want to get shot again.

“All right!” He put up a hand and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to push the pain aside. This guy wasn’t supposed to kill — or at least, he didn’t want to — because if he did there would have been nothing stopping him now. Veniamin had to assume this was meant to scare him off the trail. He had to be honest, it was a pretty effective maneuver. “Just…stop. The cops are going to be here any minute. Say what you’ve got to say so I can get out of here.”

Leather Jacket shook his head, rolling his shoulder, taking a slow half-step forward. “No they won’t. We’ve got enough time to tell me why you’re following Sgt. Schraeder.”

Veniamin blinked. He didn’t know what to say here. If he told the truth and he was talking to a corrupt cop, he’d probably come off as a threat and maybe the guy holding the gun would feel justified in shooting him right here on the street. He wasn’t a good liar, though, even in the best of situations. Nursing a bullet wound wouldn’t make him any more convincing.

“Would you believe me if I told you I was hired by a jealous wife?” He tried to smile through his grimace, but it only made the joke seem weaker.

The man in the leather jacket snorted. “Well, you tell your ‘jealous wife’ that there’s nothing going on and you’ve decided to drop your investigation. Because if Schraeder calls me again, the next bullet is going right between your eyes.”

He stepped forward and pressed the still-warm muzzle right against Veniamin’s temple, erasing the safety that distance had provided him. Worse, in his pressing of the advantage, he had revealed himself to be a grade-A asshole.

Veniamin didn’t hesitate. His left hand came up under the man’s right arm and swiped to his left, hard. He ducked down to avoid the gun shot, felt the back window of the car explode against his neck and skull. He slammed into the man’s stomach, driving the breath out of him, and brought his head up to slam against his chin. He felt his crown force the man’s jaw closed, snapping his assailant’s head back and forcing him to the ground. Veniamin took a couple of steps forward and slammed his foot down on the man’s right arm. He cried out, but his hand opened up to release the gun.

“You’re assaulting a police officer!” The man croaked.

Veniamin’s anger flared, and he put more weight on his foot. The man cried out, and a brief, weak sense of satisfaction rose between the painful throbs in his shoulder. “I’m giving as good as I get. A police officer shot me, point-blank, without cause. I’m merely defending myself.”

“Fuck you.” The police officer spat. A glob of saliva flecked the ankle of Veniamin’s suit pants.

He snarled, unable to help himself, and bent down to grab the man’s wrist. He brushed the gun aside and yanked up sharply, moving his foot up the arm to keep the man’s shoulder in place. There was a satisfying pop and a scream that cut through the sudden explosion of pain that spread over Veniamin’s torso. “Tell Schraeder that he has my full attention now. And I will find out whatever he’s up to. Make sure he knows that when I’m through with him everyone else is going to know too.”

He dropped the arm, letting the man go to curl around it on his side. He started walking, briskly, towards the end of the block. He turned the corner before he grabbed his shoulder, leaned against a wall, and groaned loudly. Now that the adrenaline was starting to wear off, the pain felt like it had moved into his bones. He felt weak, and cold.

Veniamin glanced at the street sign. Who did he know in this neighborhood? Didn’t Marian live here? What would she make of him showing up at her doorstep after midnight, covered in his own blood?

He blinked a few times as the sidewalk grew hazy and the street light dimmed. It didn’t matter what she would make of him. He had to get off the street, and he had no other place to turn. That bullet needed to come out. He needed to shift. And all of that needed to happen very soon.

Veniamin groaned as he pushed himself off the wall and stumbled into the night, gripping his shoulder. Even with his dimmed hearing, he could hear the wail of sirens coming closer.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2015 in RPGs, Writing

 

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Friday Fiction: The Exchange (Kraugh – Star Wars: Age of Rebellion)

Gaming 150This is a short short story featuring a character I’ll be playing for a friend’s Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game. He is a Togorian (a tall, feline-like alien species with a really interesting sexual dichotomy) who eschews the typical nomadic lifestyle of his species by choice — he views traveling throughout the galaxy as merely an extension of that lifestyle, where he gets to meet all manner of different sapient beings and find interesting technology for his wife. I like playing big guys who are more interested in the intellectual, spiritual or social, what can I say?

Kraugh slouched low in his chair, made sure his hands were under the table, kept his voice low and didn’t display his teeth. He knew that his size and teeth and claws had the potential to put his trading partner on alert, and he really didn’t want that. If he could manage to pull of this score, it’d be a huge boon for the crew.

His ears flicked around the bar as he scanned the riot of people stuffed into close quarters, shouting over each other to be heard. No sign of his partner, but it was early yet. He wouldn’t start to feel nervous about being stood up for another few minutes.

For now, he simply watched people. There were a pack of Bothans sitting in one corner booth, drinking something brightly colored out of a glass as long as their forearms. They were speaking quietly, their big ears turned towards each other, fur rippling in ways that meant something only to them. Kraugh briefly thought about heading over there, buying them a drink and striking up a conversation. He’d bet at least a thousand credits that they had something intensely interesting going down. Bothans tended not to gather in one place otherwise. He shifted in his seat and drained half of his drink in one long draught. The evening would pick up soon enough, he told himself. No need to go chasing excitement when it was coming to him.

A Wookiee and a Twilek sat at another table, speaking animatedly. He could pick up a few of the growls and muted roars of Shyriiwook, but couldn’t make much sense out of the conversation. They were worried about…either a person or a box that had gone missing either three days or three hundred years before. Either way, that sounded intriguing too. Maybe if he listened closer, he could find a way into–

A Rodian slipped up to the table, holding a satchel close against its chest. A shock of reddish-brown hair leapt between its antennae and presumably continued down the back of its skull. Kraugh would have guessed it to be female, but it was difficult to tell with reptilian races. He shifted his weight to stand, thought the better of it, and simply nodded to the empty chair across the table.

<<Thank you.>> It spoke in Rodese; thankfully it was one of the few phrases Kraugh knew.

“Basic, please,” he purred. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear me butchering your language any more than I’d want to mangle it.”

The Rodian sat down with a nod. “Fine. It’s enough of a surprise to see a Togorian away from his homeworld. I guess it’s too much to expect one to speak other languages.”

Kraugh flicked an ear, taking his partner’s measure. Clearly, she was nervous — the smart play here would be to put her at ease. “I’ve picked up a few here and there. You can’t be a Galactic citizen for very long without learning a few things.”

“True.” The Rodian clutched the satchel even now. “Like being brief when you’re making a deal.”

Kraugh smiled, remembered his fangs, and stopped. “I won’t keep you.” He nodded towards the bag. “Is that it?”

The Rodian nodded, shrugging the satchel’s strap from around her shoulder and pushing the package across the table. “Open the bag and inspect quickly. If you need a closer look, you can take it into the refresher.”

Kraugh perked a brow. “You’d trust me alone with the package?”
“You wouldn’t be. There’s a Gamorrean there who’ll be glad to escort you back to the table.”

This time Kraugh couldn’t suppress a grin. “Smart.”

“You have to be to do what I do for very long.”

“I’m glad you are.” He opened the satchel with the flick of a claw and lifted the flap to peek inside.

The gun looked like the standard issue SE-14r given to stormtroopers with a few modifications. The sight was missing, the barrel was slightly shorter and the overall form factor was a bit sleeker. The pack was notably smaller, presumably to make room for a slightly rounded bulge near the safety mechanism. That could mean only one thing.

“They did it.” Kraugh purred as he closed the satchel and shoved it back towards the Rodian. “They got the gyroscopic sight to work.”

The Rodian simply nodded. “You can fire as many shots with a smaller battery, too. Small, efficient, accurate. It’s a big improvement.”

“But this is only a prototype, right? So what’s the problem?”

“The laser battery is right up against the gyroscopic sight. So if you auto-fire or shoot off a few too many rounds in too short a time, you start to warp the scope.”

Kraugh blinked. “So the more you shoot, the less accurate you get.”

“That’s right. But you don’t want a functional weapon anyway, do you?” It was possible that the Rodian smiled. Kraugh would really have to become more familiar with the finer points of their physiology.

“No, I don’t. Let’s just say it’ll be neat to see how this thing works.”

The Rodian clicked once. “A Togorian interested in technology? Now I’ve seen everything.”

Kraugh shook his head. “Oh, it’s not for me. Give me a good sc’rath any day. This is a present for my wife.”

“A romantic Togorian is even more surprising. Who’s your wife? I might have had dealings with her.”

“Give me your name and I’ll see if she knows you. She doesn’t meet many off-worlders, but that could change once her position improves.” Kraugh grinned, showing teeth this time.

The Rodian waved off the comment good-naturedly. “Perhaps another time, then. Once we’ve learned to trust each other.”

“Once you’ve learned to trust me, you mean.” Kraugh dug into the pack at his hip and fished out a number of credit sticks. They were easily hidden in his hand, and he placed them under the satchel. “You’ll find it all there, plus a little extra for making this run so smoothly. Hopefully, that’ll help.”

He leaned back while the Rodian counted the credits and slipped them into her pocket. “It does, a little. It’s been a pleasure, Togorian, but I’m sure you have other places to be.”

Kraugh lifted a brow. “Other business here?” He drained his drink and stood, grabbing the satchel in one big hand. “If you have anything else for me, just pass a word along to Talik. He’ll make sure it gets to me.”

“I sure will,” the Rodian said. “Until then.”

Kraugh nodded and stalked towards the entrance of the bar. It only occurred to him when he ducked out into the heat of the day that this could be some sort of sting operation, but he quietly dismissed it. Just because they were engaged in a number of under-the-table activities doesn’t mean they couldn’t trust one another? There had to be such a thing as honor among thieves, after all.
The Rodian looked to make sure the Togorian was gone before speaking into her comm. “The mark has taken the bait. Repeat, the mark has taken the bait.”

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2015 in Furries, RPGs, Writing

 

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Grappling Nightmares

Gaming 150I play in a Shadowrun game about once a month with a few local friends, and I’m enjoying it. My character’s concept — and if you know me, you know that of course this is how I roll — is that he’s a member of the Sioux nation who’s been goblinized later in life during puberty. His parents, being a fairly extreme “back to magic/nature” set, took this as a sign that he was destined to be a great shaman. He spent the next seven or eight years learning the finer points of magic, until his sister disappeared in Seattle and resurfaced in Tokyo.

Shadowrun is a pretty classic cyberpunk role-playing game, by the way. The idea is that a new age of magic has arisen somewhere in the early 21st century and the world has gone through a series of upheavals trying to incorporate it. The setting is a heady mish-mash of ultra-powerful mega-corporations, crazy cyber-technology and old-school magic mixing with near- and retro-future concepts. It’s insane, and that’s great. But one of the things I’m learning is that for a character like mine to hang, he needs to be really, REALLY good at the things within the niche he’s created for himself.

That may include things like “unarmed combat”, which turns my blood cold and makes me immediately apologetic to the friend running the game. I’ve played in any number of systems during my now two-decade (!!) tabletop gaming career — everything from D&D 2nd/3rd/4th ed to White Wolf’s Storytelling system to RIFTS/Palladium to FATE — and almost all of them share one common feature despite all of their differences. They all suck eggs when it comes to laying down rules for fist-fighting.

It’s such a simple thing to want. You take a look at a really great martial-arts movie or a gloriously ugly fist-fight in a gangster or action film, and you want to make a character who can do that. But in almost all of the settings you play in, the designers assume your standard adventurer is going to rely heavily on melee or ranged weapons. For some reason, introducing your bare fists — or Frith forbid, improvised weapons — introduces this extra layer of complication that either breaks the game or bogs the system down with so many situational rules it’s often just not worth it.

In RIFTS (which, to be fair, is a completely broken system anyway), taking martial arts beefs up your physical attributes to a potentially insane degree. In Pathfinder (an offshoot of D&D 3.5), unarmed combat is a labyrinth of rules that shifts depending on conditions. Entering into a fist-fight there is a lot of work for very little pay-off; the system is designed so that it’s way, way easier to just swing a sword and tally the damage.

The only system I’ve seen that deals with unarmed combat reasonably well is the FATE system, and that’s because it tries to be as malleable as possible. Everything you want to do has one or two effects: it either deals direct damage to your opponent, or places a condition on your opponent or the environment around you that lets you do something else a bit more easily. Done. It’s quite elegant, and works roughly the same as every other form of combat.

But that’s the exception rather than the rule, and it’s kind of amazing to me that the simplest form of fighting has the most complicated rule-set within the world of tabletop gaming. Why IS that, anyway?

So I’m throwing the question out into the ether. Why do you suppose unarmed combat is so hard to get right in tabletop games? What’s the best example of an out-of-the-box system of rules getting it right? What sort of house rules have you implemented to make unarmed combat less of a headache? I’m, um, asking for a friend.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in RPGs

 

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