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(Fiction) Sergei & Bunkin #2: The Glade

Writing 150The Essex Freehold was on a large lot of land mostly covered by wild forest broken up by small clearing — some of which had buildings and some of which didn’t. The freehold itself was right at the front of the property behind locked gates; you either had to key in a five-digit combination or say a secret phrase to the chimerical gremlin sitting on top of the key pad. Bunkin had gotten them in with the phrase, then argued about whether or not Whitney or Beyonce was better for ten minutes before Sergei dragged him along.

Now they were definitely not lost in the young woods and bushy undergrowth a half-mile behind the huge brick mansion, according to the pooka squire. The clearing with the “problem” chimera should definitely be around here somewhere. However, Sergei was getting the feeling that they were going around in circles. The deer paths were starting to show the signs of their previous passings, and the lower branches along the trees bore familiar scrapes from where his horns brushed them the first time.

Bunkin was a little ways ahead of him, squinting at a map that had obviously been printed by his school library’s dying printer. In an effort to make it more legible, he traced the faint outlines in pen. This might have been a fatal error; if he had marked in landmarks that were mere flights of fancy to make the travel more interesting, neither one of them would have a clue. It was a hazard in having a pooka for a squire, he supposed.

The troll tapped Bunkin’s shoulder lightly to get his attention and then signed. What are we looking for?

The map says that we should have seen the unicorn trail by now, and that we can follow that to the glade. But I can’t tell if these tracks are unicorn or deer. And since the big trail splits off three ways over there… Bunkin pointed to the east, southeast, and due south, then shrugged.

The squire had a point. Sergei had never seen a unicorn before, but he knew that it was roughly the same size as a deer with split hooves more than likely. He would have guessed the unicorn to have a gait more like a horse, but that wasn’t a given. He stared at the three paths Bunkin had marked out and tried to figure which was which, but they were far too similar. Unless…

He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and focused on the Glamour around him. There likely wouldn’t be much — this was mostly new growth on private land, and the natural magic of the place would be drawn to the balefire within the freehold’s mansion. But there should be enough for him to spot a basic trail.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw Bunkin’s true fae visage more clearly — an upright six-foot rabbit with wood-brown fur, a basic tunic and trousers, and a hand-drawn map of the Duke’s lands. In addition to the oak, hickory, and sassafras trees there were others that shimmered with rainbow bioluminescence in the afternoon sun; squat bushes bearing, impossibly, mushrooms with red and white spotted caps and little button eyes; and tiny trails hugging roots and vanishing under the undergrowth. Sergei thought he saw something moving the grasses there, but looked away before he could find out what it was.

He peered at the three paths again. The first path, headed east, showed prints that seemed to dance along the dirt, with a crystalline glint catching the sun whenever the wind blew. Somehow, he knew this would be the way to go. He nodded in that direction and made his way forward, with Bunkin scrambling to catch up.

I’ve never seen a unicorn before, Bunkin signed to him. I don’t think I’m dressed right for the occasion. I hope she likes me.

When we get to the clearing, we’ll probably see Beyonce but not the unicorn. Of course, they might be surprised…but if they stuck to tradition, the mythical creature certainly wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him.

What? Why? We’re the good guys. Unicorns can be shy, but they know someone pure of heart when they see them. Bunkin puffed out his chest a little. His eyes, huge and black and liquid, were surprisingly effective at broadcasting a purity he didn’t have.

We might be pure of heart, but I’m pretty sure you’re not a virgin. Sergei grinned down at his squire, then ruffled his ears with a broad, heavy hand.

“Gross.” Bunkin frowned as he stopped to ‘fix’ his ears. “I’m still in high school, dude.”

Sergei blinked and turned to look at his squire. You mean you are?

“When would I have had sex? During exams? When I was working for you over summer vacation? There’s just no time.” Bunkin was exceptionally stone-faced, or maybe Sergei wasn’t good at reading the expressions of a rabbit after all this time.

Well…maybe we’d better let you lead the conversation, then, Pure of Heart. Sergei stepped aside on the unicorn path to give Bunkin the right of way. You learn something new every day, he thought to himself.

It only took them a few minutes of walking to reach the edge of the clearing. The trees parted suddenly to reveal a small meadow no more than a hundred feet across, impossibly bright with sunlight. There, in the center, was a tall, almost elfin woman whose skin seemed to absorb and reflect the golden glow. She was in a sheer white dress, ribbons of fabric floating off her arms and around her ankles. Prancing around her was the unicorn, its pelt as white as her silk, its horn as bright as her skin. It stopped as they approached, looking their way with a warning, nervous snort. The woman’s gaze followed. Both Sergei and Bunkin knew at once this was the chimera they were looking for.

“No way,” Bunkin whispered. “I will never understand why so many people get so lost in their head over Beyonce.”

“Hello?” the chimera’s voice rang through the clearing like a bell, though Sergei couldn’t see her lips moving. The unicorn pawed in agitation at the grass, lowering its horn towards them.

Well, Pure of Heart, you’re up. Sergei pointed to the clearing, and Bunkin nodded.

I’ve got this, he signed, then strode confidently out of his hiding spot.

“Yo, Bey-Bey, what’s up girl??”

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2017 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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(Gaming) Meet Bunkin Johnson, the Devoted Squire

ctd20

Last Friday I wrote up one of my characters for the Changeling 20th Anniversary Edition — Sergei Kolov, the Silent Knight. Now, meet his Devoted Squire Bunkin Johnson! I’ve had these two in my head for a very long time now; I had a vague idea for a Changeling-based TV show called “Sleepwalkers”, where faeries were running around as normal people except for folks who had “the sight”. They’ve gone through many different iterations, and I’m happy that they get to come full-circle to the setting they were always meant to be in.

Bunkin Johnson is (of course) a rabbit pooka with a whip-crack wit and a keen desire to give himself over to a cause that’s bigger than him. He finally finds it in Sergei — as his eyes, ears and mouth if necessary. They’ve thankfully relaxed the rules on pooka lies in C20, but I imagine that Bunkin’s lies are still fairly frequent, serving the purpose of advancing Sergei’s agenda and reputation. Also, they serve to deflect attention away from him; he works best when no one’s looking.

BUNKIN JOHNSON, THE DEVOTED SQUIRE

Background
Even though Carver Johnson comes from a family of Baltimore natives, the half-black/half-Irish student has never felt at home in the city. His father — a police administrator — couldn’t reconcile the fact that his son was interested in his office for all the wrong reasons even from a young age, so he left the bulk of the rearing to Carver’s mom, a veterinarian whose work often came home with her. Animals were one of the only things that young Carver could focus on, so his parents assumed he would follow in his mother’s footsteps someday. It was a mild shock when he chose to go to Baltimore City College for high school instead of its science/engineering focused rival, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Carver’s love of words rivaled his love of animals, though, and he quickly became one of the most popular “nerds” in school. He was the class clown the teachers couldn’t get angry enough to punish, the geek that somehow avoided beatdowns by the jocks. As easily as he navigated the treacherous landscape of high school, however, he still felt something was missing. He found what he had been looking for all his life the night he saw the Silent Knight rescue one of his teachers from a couple of thugs.

He thought he went crazy when he noticed the huge stranger grow horns and lupine fangs, or saw that his teacher had pointed ears and two eyebrows. His sense of hearing and smell grew sharper; colors popped way too brightly; voices cheered on one side or the other from the shadows. When the overly-pierced monsters were finally dispatched, Carver ran up to the stranger and begged to be his squire. He had no idea why; it just felt like destiny.

Nine months later, Carver has learned much about his own pooka nature and the world of the fae. He sees himself as the voice for the voiceless knight, making sure Sergei’s needs are attended to. His parents are quite suspicious of this newfound passion for helping the homeless, but they chalk it up as just another phase their strange son is going through. Hopefully, eventually, he’ll settle down and be a vet.

Mortal Seeming
Carver is one of those kids who looks reasonably put together; his fade is fresh, his edges are lined up, and his clothes are bright and well-kept. He presents a really nice silhouette. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s something in his expression and demeanor that gives him an air of awkward discomfort, like he’s just waiting for something frightening to happen. His eyes are spaced notably wide apart, his nose looks like it wants to lead right towards his lips, and two large incisors are prominent due to an overbite. His cleanliness looks fussy; he will never be calm or still.

Fae Mien
As a fae, Bunkin looks much more calm and collected. His brown eyes are huge and dark, taking in his surroundings with calm alertness. His long ears are often pointed in different directions, though it’s unclear how much he can actually hear. For all intents and purposes, he comes across as a tall, self-possessed bipedal rabbit in “simple” Victorian clothing. He prefers his feet to be bare, covered with tailored spats at most, with a messenger bag slung over one shoulder and across his chest. His companion, a tiny cockroach in a top hat, can frequently be found on the other.

Vital Statistics
Court: Seelie
Legacies: Squire/Beast
Seeming: Wilder (16)
House: Commoner

Physical: Strength 2, Dexterity 3, Stamina 2
Social: Charisma 4, Manipulation 3, Appearance 3
Mental: Perception 2, Intelligence 3, Wits 3

Talents: Alertness 1, Athletics 1, Empathy 2, Expression 3, Intimidation 1, Kenning 2, Subterfuge 2
Skills: Animal Ken 1, Etiquette 1, Performance (oratory) 2, Stealth 1
Knowledges: Academics 3, Computer 3, Enigmas 2, Investigation 1, Law 1, Politics 1, Science 1, Technology 1

Arts: Chicanery 1, Legerdemain 1, Metamorphosis 1
Realms: Actor 2, Fae 2, Nature 1, Scene 1
Backgrounds: Companion 2, Contacts 1, Dreamers 1, Resources 1

Tempers: Glamour 5, Willpower 4, Banality 3
Merits: Acute Hearing 1, Good Listener 1, Loyal Heart 2
Flaws: Echoes 2

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2017 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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(Gaming) Meet Sergei Kolov, the Silent Knight

Gaming 150A friend pointed me towards Changeling: the Dreaming in high school when he was trying to sell me on the Vampire: the Masquerade game he was building. If you’ve got basic knowledge about the World of Darkness, you’ll have some idea about how fundamentally incompatible the two games are — the Kindred are active agents of Banality, the force of disbelief that’s severing mankind’s tie to the Dreaming, after all. Even still, we made my first pooka character and that was that. I fell in love, and for several years Changeling was my jam.

Now the 20th Anniversary Edition of Changeling: the Dreaming is out and of COURSE I helped fund the Kickstarter campaign at the highest level. As part of the sweet stash of goodies, I will (hopefully) have two(!) character concepts drawn by one of the game artists for the new edition. I’m incredibly excited.

ctd20

As soon as I knew I could get two characters (thanks to my wonderful and generous husband), I knew exactly who I’d submit — Sergei Kolov, the Troll Knight and his loyal Pooka Squire Bunkin Johnson. When I run a chronicle — and you’d better believe I will — these two will be fairly prominent players in the Duchy of the Blue Crab (that’s the faerie name for Baltimore City).

I thought I’d do a quick write-up on Sergei and Bunkin, then post them here. If you’re thinking about writing a Changeling game or story, feel free to use them as you wish. I’m just really happy to be able to play in the world of the Kithain again!

SERGEI KOLOV, THE SILENT KNIGHT

Background
Sergei Kolov was born William Jackson Covington, the oldest son of a farming family scratching together their existence in rural North Carolina. He came into the world oversized and grew bigger from there; by the time he was 13 he was nearly six feet tall and his reputation as a gentle giant had been cemented. Bill’s father told him being meek wasn’t just what God wanted him to do — it was also the way he would have to survive in the world. No matter what he was like on the inside, people we see him as a big black man and be afraid. Bill took this to heart. He said only what he had to, when he had to, and he only made use of his God-given strength to defend people who couldn’t defend themselves. And there were a lot of those.

Things took a turn during Bill’s first year of high school. He quickly gained a reputation as a defender of geeks and underclassmen, but that kind of guardianship wouldn’t be tolerated for very long. One day before Christmas break, he was jumped by six upperclassmen and beaten into a coma. He woke up over a fortnight later, on New Year’s Day — unable to speak, but healthy for the most part. His parents knew, however, that something had changed; Bill’s eyes would dart to thin air frequently, and…odd things would happen around him from time to time. The Covingtons didn’t mind too much when their son told them he was going to move out after graduation; there was something off about him in a way that made his superstitious family uneasy.

He left home when he graduated high school to make his fortune in Baltimore, and he’s been penniless ever since. For the past two years, however, he’s made a name for himself in the Duchy of the Blue Crab through countless heroic deeds; the “Silent Knight” has earned the goodwill of Charm City’s commoners and the attention of the ruling Court. For now, he’s content to accept the charity of the local fae but has refused a more official position within anyone’s freehold — noble, or commoner.

Mortal Seeming
In his mortal guise, Sergei is an enormous black man standing well over 6 feet tall with 300+ pounds of hard-earned muscle. Even in the hardened streets of Baltimore, he cuts an imposing figure. Almost everything about his demeanor is meant to soften that image: he favors loose and functional clothing, almost constantly walks with a bend in his back, and only looks directly at someone when he’s smiling. He’s as well-kept as a homeless man can be, with a small mane of dreadlocked hair and a thick (but somehow groomed) beard.

Fae Mien
As a fae, Sergei is truly towering — he gains more than two feet in height and an even more Herculean build. His skin is shaded more slate than blue, but his eyes are as clear and bright as a cloudless sky. His bearing is more confident and self-possessed, his gaze steadier. His clothes are still loose and functional, but well cared-for. It’s impossible to miss the large broadsword at his hip and the table-sized wooden shield slung across his back; despite the amount of space he takes up (a lot), he never seems to bump into things with them.

Vital Statistics
Court: Seelie
Legacies: Saint/Fatalist
House: Commoner
Seeming: Wilder (19)

Physical: Strength 4, Dexterity 2, Stamina 4
Social: Charisma 3, Manipulation 1, Appearance 2
Mental: Perception 4, Intelligence 2, Wits 2

Talents: Alertness 3, Brawl 3, Empathy 2, Intimidation 1, Kenning 2, Leadership 1, Streetwise 2
Skills: Drive 1, Etiquette 2, Firearms 1, Melee 3, Stealth 1, Survival 2
Knowledges: Academics 1, Enigmas 1, Gremayre 1, Law 1, Medicine 1

Arts: Dragon’s Ire 1, Primal 2, Wayfare 1
Realms: Actor 2, Fae 1, Prop 2, Time 1
Backgrounds: Chimera (items) 3, Contacts 2, Treasures 1

Tempers: Glamour 5, Banality 3, Willpower 5, Nightmare 0
Merits: Languages (ASL, Russian) 2; Reputation 2
Flaws: Mute 4

Chimerical Items
Broadsword (Str+Melee/6; dmg. Str+3 or +4 if two-handed, lethal) – 2
Wooden Shield (Armor Rating 2; diff. Increase +2; Dex -1) – 1

Treasures
“The Listening Horn” – This is an old-fashioned brass horn, intended as a crude hearing aid. However, anyone who puts the horn to their ear and invests a point of Glamour into it can read “between the lines” of what their target is saying. This duplicates the effects of the Naming 1 cantrip.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2017 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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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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