All posts by h3lldr0p

Into The Dark

“No, mom. That’s not how it works,” I shake my head and wave to the crowd standing dockside. The smile on my lips is only there because everyone else is doing the same. It’s an infectious thing, that sort of joy. Something I’m hoping doesn’t go away as the ship gets out to sea.

“I know dear, I’m having trouble with it. It’s not something we talked about when I was younger. Women liked men and vice-versa. I just want you to know we don’t think it excuses Bill.”

I nod, even if my mother isn’t able to see it.

“I’m glad you understand that.”

“I do. We both do. A betrayal in marriage is just that. It doesn’t matter what he was thinking. Trying to introduce another woman to your bedroom!”

I sigh. The divorce was bad enough, but having to come out to my parents as a bisexual made it more complicated. Stupid, stupid Bill. Always thinking with his dick first. I almost wish we’d never met.

“Okay, mom, the ship is leaving the dock. I’ve got to let you go. I’ll try to email but I can’t promise anything.”

“Right. We love you, Kelly and I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.”

“Love you too. Bye, mom.”

The crowd continues to wave and cheer for several more minutes as the tugs guide the ship away from the pier. I watch as we slip through the churning ugly dark water of the bay. It takes me away from the stress of the past several months, the frightening amount of uncertainty Bill pushed me into, and the unhealthy amount of resentment my therapist says I have. Absorbed in thought, the world drifts away. Which is why I nearly leap out of my skin when I glance up and notice I’m not as alone as I thought I was.

She smiles, her green eyes shining with suppressed laughter as I stammer an awkward apology.

“Sorry, I thought I was alone.”

Her hand reaches out and touches my arm, as she tucks a few loose strands of hair behind a freckled ear. Any words I might try to say get caught in my throat as she turns around and walks down the deck.

I bend over and put my burning forehead against the cool railing.

“And with that, ladies and gentlemen, my first singles cruise is off to an awesome start.”

#####

Seattle to San Diego, across the pacific to Hawaii, then  onto Sydney. A month and a half onboard to get to know people, to have fun, sun, and whatever else consenting adults want to get up to.

My friend and longtime confidant Monica told me about it a month after I filed for divorce.

“It’ll do you good. Help prime the pump, as it were,” she said.

“I don’t know. The divorce isn’t final yet. And who knows how I’ll be feeling after the papers are signed. Maybe I’ll want to throw myself off a bridge before I’ll feel like dating. Again.”

She shook her head at me.

“Listen to yourself. The divorce is already final in your head. You never did anything that your brain didn’t already analyze a thousand different ways. You’re ready.

“Besides, no one said you had to fall in love right away. Go and have fun. Meet all sorts of new people. Socially and biblically.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Because of what Bill did. Do I have to spell it out for you?”

The shocked look on my face must have done all the talking. Monica’s face turned red and she left the office we shared, not returning for an hour. By the time she got back, I’d booked the trip.

Then I was on the phone to my lawyer. If this was going to be a mistake, it was going to be on Bill’s dime, not mine.

#####

“Divorce or spinster? Take a guess.”

She’s not unattractive. The way she’s holding the wine glass at a jaunty angle and tilts her head is alluring, but the half-drunk smile is not. Her bleached hair with blue streaks is rebellious but conforming. Reminds me of half my students right after they have a bad breakup.

“Divorce,” I say.

“Damn. What gave it away?”

“The hair,” I say pointing to her head. Taking a sip of my whiskey, I shuffle the cards. The three others all nod in agreement. Before I can stop myself, my mouth opens again.

“And you’ve got a kid that’s just entering their teens.”

Her brown eyes narrow to points and a snarl briefly appears at the corners of her mouth. It would appear that I’ve touched a nerve.

“Good guess,” she says before the rest of the wine goes down her throat. The second half of the bottle tips into the glass and is swirled around for a second before joining the first.

The others at our little table smile, choking back the laughter as the cards are dealt.

“Twos and Tens are wild this time. Find the joker, double your entry in the pot. Ante up people, we’re playing until someone is naked.”

A pair of socks join my shirt sitting in the middle of the table. A slip suddenly appears from Blue Streak’s side, followed by pair of jeans from right across from me.

“Okay, who hasn’t joined in yet?” I ask.

There’s a sigh followed by a bra.

If I only knew their names. But no, this is one of those activities the ship organizes. Throwing random people together in someone’s cabin with cards, chips, and enough booze to grease the social wheels to China and back. However, we put our own spin on poker night. A little regression to more innocent times.

I pick up my hand and stare at a pair of aces and a pair of tens. Nice.

“What about you, dealer? Spinster or divorce?” asks the blue-eyed twenty-something that ponied up the jeans.

She also falls into that average category, not a great beauty but also not unattractive. Younger than me by a decade. Might have felt something back in college, but that barrier I’ve erected to keep students and myself separate also holds me back.

“I’ll give you a hint,” I say with a smile. “I didn’t pay for this trip.”

We laugh for several minutes before getting back to the game. I slide out one card and wait for them to do the same before picking up the deck again.

“I wish I had thought of that,” socks says.

Another pair of brown eyes, she lost her shirt and bra a while ago. Early forties but has taken care of herself nicely. Her curves only hint at the three kids she keeps talking about. Kids nearly as old as blue-eyes with whom she keeps flirting. Kinda creepy.

Although it’s not nearly as creepy when blue-eyes flirts back. Or when she switched chairs with the ever silent Raven-haired woman so they’re sitting next to one another. At some recent point I made the decision to not look under the table. Just in case.

I circle the deck around the table exchanging cards and end up staring at the Raven for a few extra seconds as she’s distracted. She smiles sweetly when she does finally look up.

“Not to change the subject too drastically, but what did y’all think of that stop we made yesterday?” she asks with a half-southern, half-Texan drawl.

“Pretty weird, if you ask me,” Blue-streaks says, frowning at her cards.

“I don’t know if I buy whales sneaking up on us. Seems to me that they have Sonar to prevent that,” Blue-eyes says.

The others nod in agreement as two of them fold, leaving myself facing Raven and the older Creepy. Raven has been doing most of the winning. That bra she tossed in for ante was Creepy’s. It smacked of being a taunt.

“Okay, last round,” I announce and toss my socks on to the pile. Creepy stands up and unzips her pants with a smile that’d send me running if it was just the two of us. Turns out she was going commando and is literally down to nothing. Raven tosses a shirt from her pile.

“I call,” says Creepy, showing a triplet of kings.

“Not bad,” I say, revealing my full house.

Everyone turns to Raven.

“What? I got nothing. Total bluff this time,” she says, turning over a hand of trash.

Creepy groans and slips down in her chair. The others cheer a little bit as I take my winnings, pulling my shirt back on.

“We said until someone’s naked. And that would appear to be the case,” Raven says, nodding at the pouting Creepy.

“Yup, so do want another round or what?” I ask.

Blue eyes leans over and proceeds to give Creepy a full mouth on mouth kiss. As we watch, tongues come out and fingers start playing with more than hair. Without another word, the rest of up get up and starts going through the pile of clothes as quickly as we can.

Raven stands by the door looking uncomfortable as we struggle to get our clothes back on. Our last look at the pair was one of bodies starting to intertwine. I shake my head as Raven and Blue-streaks start breaking into laughter as we walk down the hallway.

“I totally did not see that coming,” Blue-streaks says.

“Who knows, maybe she has a thing for women twice her age. I’m not judging,” Raven says.

We nod in agreement as we come upon one of the many corridor junctions.

“I think is my stop,” Blue-streak says. “The night is still early and I’d like to see what else might happen.”

“Well, good luck,” I say, waving as she shimmies toward another party.
I turn back to Raven, shrugging my shoulders and sighing.

“You want to walk the deck for a while?” she asks.

“Sure. Oh, and since we didn’t get introduced earlier…I’m Kelly,” I say holding out my hand.

Raven smiles and does a half curtsey before taking my hand and giving it a quick shake.

“Pleasure. You may know me as…Tim?”

“Ah. The old man from scene 24. I wondered why you looked so familiar.”

We laugh. The trip up to the deck is filled with us quoting our favorite movies and shows back and forth. We hit the more obscure ones trying to stump the other.

As we start a second lap I ask Raven what her name really is.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Can’t be any worse than the one I’ve been calling you in my head.”

“And what’s that?”

“Raven. Because of your hair.”

Her cheeks flush red, the blush going down into her shirt. I cock my head to the side as she puts her hands over her mouth and then runs away. It takes a second before I start running after her.

“Wait! What did I say?”

I catch up to her huddling in a chair far from everyone else.
“Hey,” I say leaning down and trying to brush the wild hair out of her face. “What happened back there?”

It takes a second before she looks up into my eyes. There’s a little bit of fear there. Her weak smile does give a bit of reassurance that it wasn’t me she was running away from.

“Sorry. I panicked a little.”

“A little? You ran halfway down the deck,” I say, taking a seat.

She shrugs and unfolds enough that her knees aren’t jutting up under her chin anymore.

“That was a little crazy, wasn’t it?”

“More than a little. I was just making conversation, not trying to get in your pants.”

“I know,” she pauses and sighs. “I think I might have been trying to get into yours. Do you have any idea how poor the nerd to normal ratio is on this boat?”

“I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.”

That gets her to laugh and unfold more.

“Thanks. I really shouldn’t be taking this so seriously should I?”

I grab a hand and give it a quick squeeze. She doesn’t let go after I relax.

“I don’t know. How seriously were you taking it and what were you taking seriously?”

She blushes again before turning and looking away. For a moment, I let her do that. Then I reach out and bring her head back around so we can look each other face to face.

“Right. So how about this: We hang out together, talk, eat, go on walks, see the sights, whatever. If we don’t murder each other, then we can figure out the next move.”

She nods and squeezes my hand.

“My name is Sindy. Short for Cynthia. I was named after my grandmother. But since the seventh grade, I’ve spelled it with an S mostly to piss her off. She’s been a complete bitch my entire life.”

As we sit there, watching the stars and the ocean slip by the ship shudders. Something makes me see double: Two ships moving through the same space but not quite at the same time. There’s another copy of myself, staring back at me. It’s too much. I can’t make any sense of it, so I close my eyes.

Raven starts screaming.

“What is it, what are you seeing?” I shout.

“I…I don’t know. It hurts.”

“Close your eyes. Don’t look and stay close to me.”

The ship lurches, hard, coming to a sudden halt and we’re thrown onto the deck.

“Are you okay?” I ask, turning to Raven who is curled up in my arms.

She nods and grabs me to bring me closer as the PA buzzes to life. A familiar male voice, the same one which does the daily announcements begins to speak.

“There’s been a minor issue with the engine. It will be restarted and everything will be back running in a few minutes. Doctors and nurses will be available on your home deck to examine you, starting in five minutes.”

After standing up, Raven and I remain on the deck watching the stars and holding one another in the dark. A few minutes later, the engines start up and without much delay, the ship begins moving once more.

#####

That was a day out of San Diego. We stay onboard despite thinking the better of the rest of the trip. I regret this in many ways. Not the least of which are the nightmares which Raven starts having as soon as we leave port.

They started with her talking in her sleep. A week later, halfway to Honolulu, she begins waking up covered in a cold sweat. Despite this, she remains upbeat.

Telling me about them, she describes huge structures. Some buried deep in deserts, some drowned for ages under the ocean. All of them surrounded by darkness. In each place, she’s running to keep from being caught by something chasing her through the dark.

#####

“Com’on! When’s the next time you’ll be in Hawaii? Ever?” she asks.

“I’d rather catch up on my reading, Raven. It’s my first chance in weeks. I’ll be able to go out on deck without being bothered.”

“We have only three days in port. Today and tomorrow come with me and explore the island. And I’ll leave you all alone on that last one to do your reading.”

I stand and nod.

“Okay. You’ve talked me into it.”

“Good,” she says leaning in and throwing her arms around my neck.

Despite the touristy things, I really enjoy it. We stay near the beach that first night, holding hands and watching the night come over the glassy bay.

Lacking the funds for another spontaneous beachfront hotel stay, we reboard the boat after our second day of exploration. Our sun-kissed skin welcomes the temperature controlled room and cool showers.

I see Raven off at the ramp and head back to my cabin. I fall backwards onto the bed, taking a moment to soak up the emptiness of the room and closing my eyes.

After a few minutes, I gather up my bag of deck items, grab the keycard and head out of the cabin and make my way up to the ultra-cushy Platinum deck. A few crew members greet me as I wander around the empty seating area.

I choose something deep in the shade side of the ship, less to fuss with, less to worry about if I fall asleep. Wrapping up in my towels and I practically disappear from view. Gulls cracking their lonely cry above and an occasional swoosh from the wind is more than enough to relax me.

I’m not sure how long passes before a couple of senior officers appear, going straight to the unmanned bar. They don’t seem to notice me sitting as they start discussing something that I catch only snippets of before it becomes heated.

“And what did he think was going to happen when they were called? Just swim alongside the ship until we go there?” the first one asks.

He’s stocky but not short. Maybe an inch or two taller than me with mousy brown hair and eyes. The breeze carries the scent of booze on him. As the other starts shouting, I try shrinking into the chair.

“Alright? I know. He knows now. That’s why we’ll delay calling more until we’re there. I guess. He keeps fiddling with the cursed thing.”

The second one is blonde, tall and appears to be chiseled from granite. Not sure what the uniforms indicate, but if I had to guess this one ranked higher than his drunk companion.

“We should take it away from him,” Boozehound says. “Make him wait until the appointed time. We should have never brought him in the circle. Too much risk!”

Granite shakes his head.

“There wasn’t another choice. He had to know so the course could be plotted to coincide.”

Boozehound nods in agreement and brings out a bottle to take a swig of. Granite snatches it from his hands.

“You’ve drunk too much. You need to dry out and get your head right again.”

“Mind your own damn business. With those things, I need all the peace I can get. You don’t have the nightmares, do you John?”

Boozehound grabs the bottle back and seems to gulp down the rest of it in a single movement. Granite-John just shakes his head.

“I don’t but that’s because I’ve made my peace. I know what’s going to happen and look forward to it,” Granite-John says, turning to Boozehound. “Makes me wonder why you haven’t.”

Boozehound sneers at Granite-John before stalking off. Granite-John follows, shaking his head as if disappointed with outcome. No indication that either one of them noticed me sitting there. I check my watch and see that it’s getting close to dinner now.

I let a few more minutes pass before I get out from under the towels, checking to see if I am alone. No noise, no crew. Raven should be back soon. I get my stuff together and head to the cabin.

It could be paranoia but I don’t feel alone on my way back. Something is watching me, but I can’t say from where. Or why. Am I starting to lose it?

I lay down on the bed, trying not to cry but I can feel the tears dripping from the corners of my eyes. About an hour later, Raven comes in and gets me to put my head in her lap, calming me down enough to tell her what happened.

“I think you just fell asleep on deck. You know you were worn out from the last couple of days,” she says while smoothing my hair.

“It felt so real, though. I mean, I could smell the booze coming off the guy. I could have lit it and watched him burn.”

“Dreams are like that. You know the nightmares I’ve been having? Those seem just as real to me.”

I nod and sit up, facing Raven. She leans in kisses me. She feels safe and warm and everything I want right now. My arms wrap her close to me, but she pushes me back.

“We’ve got one more leg of the trip. It’s the long one. Are you sure you want to go? Once we leave there’s no turning back,” she says.

“As long as we’re together, I’ll be fine. This isn’t the first time I’ve had persistent nightmares. And they’re only dreams. Nothing in dreams can hurt me.”

“On to Oz!”

#####

Out on the seas again, Raven suggests going to a Captain’s dinner to see if I see the two men.

“Just to convince yourself it was nothing but a dream.”

“But what if I do see them? Wouldn’t that mean…”

“It would mean nothing of the sort. Trust me. As freaky as my nightmares have been, I know they’re dreams. Anything I see in real life from them is a coincidence.”

“And have you been seeing things?”

She stands up and comes over to me, taking my hands into hers and giving them a squeeze.

“A few things, but again, trust the nightmare expert over here. They’re no big deal. Just coincidences.”

“If I agree to this, will you tell me everything about your nightmares?”

“Everything. But only after the dinner.”

“Okay. I’ll make a call to the concierge and see what it takes to get arranged.”

What doesn’t surprise me is the list. What does surprise me is how easily you can get to the front of the list with a few smart questions and the purser holding a large sum in your ship account.

We arrive to find the dining room very full, waitstaff hurrying everywhere. Everyone is dressed in their best. Even a few tuxedos and formal dresses which look like they flew in from Paris or New York. And here we are in cheap cocktail dresses.

“Well, I don’t feel outclassed in the least,” Raven says.

“Hush,” I hiss under my breath as the Maitre’d shows us to the Captain’s table.

It is not exactly an intimate affair. Around the huge table there’s places for forty people, maybe more. However, he does get up as the two of us arrive to take us from his Maitre’d. We appear to be the last to show.

“Thank you Charles. I’ll show them from here.”

He offers one arm to me and his other to Raven, a gesture that seems to surprise her. I nod, readily taking the offer while giving Raven a look to follow my lead. She does, trying to smile and hide a sigh.

The captain takes us to our seats, presenting us to the couples on either side.

“Kelly and Sindy, this is Georgia and Pete,” he says with a smile and wink.

Pete looks like an ordinary guy in his mid-forties. Maybe a little lanky, the sort of look accountants stereotypically have. His dark skin give the purple suit a certain seventies throwback look. Georgia is a handsome woman, playing up the butch with cropped hair, pantsuit, and shoulder pads big enough for a linebacker.

“Georgia, Pete? This is Kelly and Sindy. Kelly is recently divorced, and Sindy? Well, from what she’s told me this is her big chance to get away from it all.”

I smile at the couple giving Pete a firm handshake and do my best to avoid Georgia’s hungry stare. Raven nods to the both of them as we are turned around to introduced to the next couple.

“And over here Kelly and Sindy, we have Gary and Gary. Not joking. Like yourselves they seem to have found one another on board.”

They nod and we return the gesture, the Captain smiles and claps a Gary on the shoulder before returning to his seat. Raven and I sit down; Raven takes the seat next to Gary leaving me with the feeling I’m going to have to be fending Georgia off for most of the meal. She doesn’t look like the sort of woman who takes “no” for a first, second, or third answer.

As we settle in the Captain raises a champagne flute to the table.

“A quick toast. To all of those assembled here tonight. May you find your dreams as we travel through the dark. It may seem deep and it may seem endless, but we are almost at our destination. And so may we all…”

He doesn’t get a chance to finish as the boat shivers violently throwing everyone to the floor. The room goes dark as dishes crash and silverware clatters all around us. A few screams pierce the air. Raven grunts next to me as we fall backwards, hitting the ground. The emergency lights flicker on, giving me enough light to see that Georgia is on top of Pete while the Garys seem to be trying to crawl under one another like a pair of frightened squirrels.

“You all right?” I ask, stretching out an arm to touch Raven.

“I…I can’t see, Kelly. I feel you. At least, I hope that’s you touching my shoulder.”

“It is. What do you mean you can’t see?”

The main lights try to flicker into life, giving me a strobing view of the room. People are frozen in terror as they try to right themselves.

“I can’t see you. I can feel you. You’re right there, but you aren’t. Where are we, Kelly? Where are we?”

“We’re in the dining room. On the floor. The ship just did that lurching thing again.”

A long pause from her and she stands up.

“No. No we’re not. It’s somewhere else.”

I feel another pair of hands on my shoulders, trying to get under my arms. For a second, I fight against them and then I hear a newly familiar voice.

“Kelly. It’s the Captain. Let me help you up.”

I stop struggling and let him help me stand. Looking around, the room has changed. The lights steady, giving me a good view of the room. Only a few people remain standing around. The Captain stands in front of me looking far more tired than he was a few minutes ago. A few other crewmen also stand nearby, or I think they’re crewmen. Their uniforms look close to what they should have been but they’re not quite right.

I turn back to the captain after looking around the room.

“Where’s Raven? She was right here.”

“She’s in the Dark,” the Captain says. He has an unhappy look on his face.

“I do apologize, Kelly. It would appear that some subordinates of mine were not as trusting as they should have been.”

“Can I get her back? Is there any way…?”

“To find her in the Dark?”

He sighs and pulls a chair up for me to sit in.

“What you’re asking isn’t an easy thing. This last surprise took a lot out of me,” he says with a gesture towards the mostly empty room.

“And you can see that I couldn’t bring everyone back.”

I think about it, looking at him and wondering, questioning everything.

“I know that look. Everyone who starts out down my path gets looks like it at one time or another. So let me say one thing before you make up your mind: It’s all about being an explorer. Nothing more. It’s not about power, it’s about knowledge.”

I frown and feel the stress of grinding my teeth together. Anger, fear, and fury have all joined forces in my heart.

“It was someone named John and a friend. The friend was about my height, brown hair, brown eyes. They were on the Platinum deck a week ago. They were talking and never saw me sitting in the shade.”

The Captain turns and nods to two of his crew. They hurry off before anything else can be said. He turns back to me and puts his heavy hand on my shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze.

“I know the two. They will be punished. But back to Sindy or was it Raven?”

“I was the only one who called her that. Because of her hair. And how she played cards. Smart and observant. Like a raven.”

He nods and smiles slightly.

“Good. You need to keep those thoughts with you.”

The smile broadens some before he turns around and nods to the remaining pair of crewmen. They also head out without a word.

“They’re going to be getting my tools. Now, let me explain what’s going to happen next.”

I cut him off before he can start.

“What do you need me to do?”

He sighs and stands up, just as several crewmen drag John and his accomplice in. They look at him, ready to start yelling when he runs a finger across both their cheeks. Flesh crawls up and seals their mouths shut.

“I know what the two of you did. You’ve done more damage than you could ever imagine. The plan wasn’t to let anyone on the cruise to get lost and now I think about half of the passengers are gone. Lost in the Dark. Good work you idiots.”

They both violently shake their heads, vocal cords straining against the fleshy gags. He turns his focus over to the little, dark haired man whose eyes go wide.

“What am I going to do? That’s a bad question. I’m not going to be doing anything.”

The Captain turns and points to me.

“She, on the other hand, is going to find Raven. And you are going to help her get to the other side.”

The other crewmen return with several items and start working. Within a few moments, they’ve used chalk to sketch something with wild shapes and sigils on the carpet. A bag is opened and a square object is placed in the middle of the work. The Captain nods before stepping into the middle of the work.

His hands are too quick to follow, but whatever he did, it caused the object to open up and it now looks like a harness the color of brass. He picks it up with one hand, using the other to motion to the crewmen holding John. They bring him over.

“Just remember, you brought this on yourself,” he says as he places it over the head like a hangman’s hood.

The heavy brass frame rests on his shoulders, and for a minute nothing happens. Then it sinks in. He tries to scream, but can’t. I hear him strain against the closure. The Captain turns and motions for me to come closer.

“In a moment the ship is going to feel like it’s shuttering again. That’s not really happening, just what your mind thinks is. At that exact moment, I need you to think about Raven. Everything you know about her. And be ready to act.”

I nod and look at John. His face is a picture of exacting terror and pain. I don’t really understand what’s going on but given that Raven is missing because of this man, I don’t have a problem with his treatment.

The Captain places a hand on my shoulder and asks, “You ready?”

“Yup.”

He turns back to touch the harness again. There’s a muffled scream as the room shudders around me and I start thinking about how much Raven has meant to me the last few days. About her smile and how it makes me feel to see it. The room fades, replace by something that echoes our world.

From somewhere distant, I can hear the Captain yelling.

“Keep thinking about her. Call out to her and wait. There are things that you don’t want to bring back. Wait until you are certain that it’s her in the Dark.”

I do as told, thinking about her, and waiting. It takes what feels like forever before I hear something come back.

“Kelly? Kelly, are you there?”

“Raven! Over here! Follow my voice!”

My hand reach out into the unknown, into the dark trying to find Raven. Someone or something passes by silent and the air turns greasy and slick, the sensation is electric and numbing at the same time. Doubling over in pain, I can only think about how the Captain warned me. Then I hear Raven again.

“You stopped talking, Kelly. Where are you?”

She’s close. Still reeling, I stand back up and take a deep breath.

“Over here. Here! Over here! Please Raven, I’m sorry I stopped talking. Over here. I’ll keep it up until you’re in my arms again. I’m here, Raven. Right here!”

For a second I think I see her stumbling towards me as a mass of a body slams into me, knocking both of us over. My arms hug whoever it is, trying to find some way of identifying them. Hair is long enough, the waist just the right shape, and her hands feel familiar as they search over my body.

“Kelly!”

“Help me up Raven.”

“The ship? How do we get back to the ship?”

As the last word of the question escapes her lips as the world becomes dawn grey. There is another shudder and the dining room shimmers into existence around us. The Captain is standing there next to a desiccated corpse, the harness embedded deep into the skin. He sighs and smiles as we take a few hesitant steps towards him.

The crew rushes in with blankets and towels. I turn my head to see the medical crew standing by. Looking down I see the dripping blood flowing down my arm. Before anything more happens, blackness pulls me under.

#####

“I understand, but that doesn’t tell me what happened,” I say as Raven finishes packing clothes into my suitcase. The scar races from elbow to the palm of my hand. A black and red line, parts of it pulse with my heartbeat where my skin is still very thin. The doctor on board has said that with time, it will thicken, but it will be a while.

“Well, that’s all I can tell you. You are incredibly lucky. Lucky that the Captain thought to have the med-team ready, lucky that that cut wasn’t deeper, and lucky that I am the same blood type.”

I put my arm back in the sling. It’s been only a few days since we escaped the darkness. Neither one of us is sure what is going to happen once we dock. There’s a lot of people missing. And we are witnesses.

As these thoughts cross my mind, my eyes drift down to the floor and stay there. Despite everything wonderful about Raven, this is not the cruise I thought I was going to take. She doesn’t speak a word but walks over and embraces me, kissing me on the cheek and pulling my head up.

“Whatever happens next, we’ll be doing it together.”

The Witch, Her Vampire, and the Book

The knock at the door makes me jump. I was lost in thoughts of the past. A short reverie about the moon over  the deep woods, myself and Janice out there in the trees celebrating and performing rituals. It is a good memory. One that I like to keep close when I am between assignments. The knock sounds a second time and I sigh through a grumbled, “I’m coming!”

The stacks of books between my couch and the door rise from floor to ceiling causing more than hazards; they make my small apartment feel claustrophobic. I get up from the pile of overstuffed cushions on my end of the sofa and dodge through the nearby stacks before opening the door to see who my unexpected visitor is.

A woman in a white trench coat stands there, smiling behind sun glasses large enough to obscure most of her face. She is tall, standing in front of me with her hands holding her little red purse by its top in front of her. Her overcoat is cinched tight around her waist and the wide brim of her hat droops around its edges, barely containing the blond curls of hair. She is the very picture of civilized charm and etiquette.

As opposed to me. My cornrowed dreads reach well past my waist, I probably smell like I could have used a shower two weeks ago, the gauge on my ears is more than enough for them flop when I don’t have anything in, and my current wardrobe consists of a t-shirt sans bra (the girls need to be freed every once in a while) and sweatpants sans underwear.

“Oh, it’s you,” I say.

“Indeed, honey child,” she replies with her sweet southern accent. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“Not until you tell me what you want,” I say.

“Ever the lady,” she says, taking off a glove. Her pale skin almost glows in the twilight shadows of the hallway.

“Fine. Ruin the surprise,” her arms flop over one another as a few strands of hair stray over her glasses. She blows them away as she says, “I have a little gift for you.”

Remaining in the doorway, I watch the corners of her mouth. They’re not moving. Neither are the tips of her fingers.

“You found the book?” I ask in a whisper.

Her nod is almost imperceptible. I swallow hard, sucking on my teeth.

“Come in then,” I say, stepping aside.

Once inside she takes off the glasses and looks around. The tiny beads of light, in the place of her pupils causes me pause when she turns around.

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. You’ve seen it all before,” she says.

“Yes, Janice, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy,” I say.

“You should be one to talk, Mary. Awake at all hours, chanting, this place of yours absolutely reeking of charnel. Really now, what do your neighbors think of you?” she asks.

I gesture to the sofa and make for my corner. I don’t sit so much as throw myself into the dent waiting there. If this is the book I think it is, I’m going to need some help getting into the pages. My pipe floats out from the end table drawer as does my lighter. Lighting the bowl and taking a deep draw, I smile and send a cloud towards Janice’s face. She just smiles and sits down at the other end, her bright red lips pulled tight to the point of almost bursting.

“Not a whole lot,” I say with a slight cough. “Considering I keep them under illusions when they’re here. As far as they know, I’m just another poor college student.”

Janice shakes her head and leans forward, her hand waving the smoke away as she does so.

“And your guests, like me?” she asks.

“That’s up to you people,” I say.

I take another deep gulp from the pipe and let it float back to its tray. A few seconds later, I let it go, slowly blowing it in a ring around me. It lights up pink and blue with a few green sparks here and there.

“Looks like I’m ready to go,” I say. “Let’s see it.”

My hand extends toward Janice and waits there. She smiles again and shakes her head.

“Not until we make a deal,” she says, wagging a finger at me.

“But I’ve already lit myself up. I don’t have the money for another batch of Granny’s Goodness,” I say with a whine.

Janice leans back, clucking her tongue at me. Around her springs up the aura she’s had since I’ve known her. Black swirls of reddish light centered around her eyes and teeth and chest. Classic vampire.

“You should have waited. I’m not giving you this without a deal in place.”

“Okay. What do you want?” I ask. My impatience bleeds through the words as the magical world starts to play before my eyes. The walls of my apartment begin to sway, wobbling with wood-sprites and house spirits playing everywhere.

“Two things,” she says, holding up her fingers.

“First, I want a promise that you’re not going to something stupid with this,” she says, peeling back a finger. “The last time, well, let’s not talk about the last time. The thing is, I don’t want it coming back to me.”

I try to keep from watching her words form in the air and bounce around the room but I can’t help it. Easily distracted. But as soon as she’s stopped talking and staring at me for a response, I snap back around.

“It won’t. I promise. All of this, if anything, is going to be totally on me,” I say.

Janice nods and holds the remaining finger right between my eyes, causing me to cross them. She laughs a bit before continuing on.

“Two…I want another night with you.”

I blink and shake my head.

“Wait. You want that now?” I ask.

Janice nods again.

“It’s been so long, Mary honey. Some might say too long,” she says and reaches out to hold my hand. Her room temperature flesh sends goosebumps up my arm, my mind screams how wrong that is, but that memory replays overriding everything else.

I should refuse her. Letting a vamp get a hold of a caster like me is always bad news. But Janice has behaved herself. Never taking and never giving too much, we have been able to remain professional. Even if I didn’t want anyone or anything else for the following six months. It would be nice to know, one of these days, if she felt the same way and if that’s why she brings me these little trinkets from time to time.

Swallowing hard, I say a single word.

“Yes.”

Her face lights up, smile revealing the two sharp points that might be my downfall one of these days.

“But,” I say, holding up a hand. “It can’t be tonight. I have plans.”

She starts pouting and stands, her back to me. I follow and pull her back down to the couch with a kiss on her lips. She sinks back down with me, holding my head between her hands and pressing her lips against mine with just enough force. I have to will myself to stop and push her shoulders back far enough to get a breath. Janice looks like she is about to cry.

“However, I am free tomorrow night. And should be the rest of the week. What do you have to say to that?”

“I say we have a deal,” she says with her pout turning to a smile. She leans in for another kiss.

I can feel the hooks she left in me stir and how tight my very loose sweatpants and t-shirt feel. Pushing her back again, I shake my head at her.

“Tomorrow,” I say. “Tomorrow night. I promise. Now, where is the book?”

She stands and fishes it out of some hidden pocket of the coat. For a second he holds it high above and like teasing a cat, waves it back and forth, waiting for me to reach for it. As I give her an unhappy look, she tosses it to me and with a grin, she zips out the door, slamming it shut as she leaves. I get up from my couch to make sure the hallway is cleared and sigh on my way back.

“My life has too many complications,” I say to the empty room.

One quick invocation later (to keep Janice from coming back too early) I return to the couch and grab the pipe for one more drag, the earlier puffs wearing off quicker than I want. The book sits on a pile next to my cushions and calls for me to open it before I’m ready. There are boundaries to put up, wards to ensure before I start playing.

And with those preparations in place, I open the book just as someone knocks at the door.

“Damn it,” I say, looking up.

They knock again.

“Go away! I’m busy,” I shout at the door.

It is answered with another knock.

“Damn it! Did you not hear me the first time? I’m busy! GO AWAY!”

Despite the wards. Despite the enchanting. Despite everything I am capable of, the door blows in, splintering in the process and sending a thousand pieces at me.

“GAAAA!”

I throw a blanket in front of me to catch the worst of it.

As it falls back down, peppered with a hundred new holes in it, I see the perpetrators. Two people in robes dragging a figure between them and a third robed person following. They step inside without a word and throw Janice to the ground. The third comes up behind them and stands over her unmoving body.

“Who are you?” I shout.

The one standing over Janice takes off the hood and looks around the room before turning back to me. He has large, glassy eyes. Eyes too big for his head and a too wide mouth to go with them. His skin looks like he’s trying to shed it like a lizard, all scaly and dry. There isn’t a stitch of hair to be found on his face, none on his pate nor above his eyes or fish-like lips. His hands look mostly normal, but I can see a hint of webbing between them before they’re hidden in the sleeves.

Then the stench hits me. I don’t know how, given how clean I keep my place, but their odor overpowers it and makes my stomach twist.

“We are the previous owners of that tome,” he croaks, pointing at the book that I’m holding against my chest.

“What of it?”

The confidence of my words sends a shiver down my spine. I am not this aggressive most days. The words seems to have put the two followers off as they appear to be surprised by the challenge. Although the leader is less impressed. He steps forward and sticks out a hand.

“I believe that we would like it back. And don’t think of that as a request or question. Your friend here was mistaken in thinking she could get away with her little theft.”

I look at the other two who’ve laid Janice out on the floor in front of my door and have rejoined the talker behind his elbows. A smile comes to my lips.

“You know, the three of you must be grunts,” I say.

The lead raises a fleshy eyebrow just before the ward hits them.

“Because real magic users know to ask for permission before entering a home. They tend to have nasty traps like that waiting for idiots.”

They fly up to the ceiling and smack it going something like seventy or eighty miles an hour. Their spines snap, the echo of the event sounding sweet to my ears. They fall back to the ground, feather like and are bundled by my spell into the broom closet to start rotting.

I get up from my sofa and take a quick peak out the shattered remains of my door. No one else seems to be waiting for the three idiots, so I dig an extra rug from behind my sofa and hang it across the empty space. Casting a quick illusion to make it look like a door, it should keep the curious out for the next couple of days.

“And now for you, Janice,” I say.

I jump over her unmoving body and into the kitchen, where my ceremonial knife is tucked away in the silverware drawer. Seems like the best place for it. Grabbing it and a few other necessities, I walk back to the entrance and kneel over Janice and bring her head up to lay against my knees. Using the knife to make a small cut on the side of my finger, I wait for a small drop of blood well up. Just enough to give her a taste and hopefully wake her back up.

I smear the drop across her lips and wait a minute. At first, I don’t think anything is happening but then her tongue flits out snake like, tasting the air and the fresh blood. I lean back and smile a little.

“So you’re not completely gone, are you?” I ask.

She smiles, “Sometimes you have to know when to play ‘possum.”

Taking my wrist she looks at me with pleading eyes. I nod, and bring it closer to her mouth. She doesn’t bite very hard, just enough to break my skin and then her tongue does the rest. Closing my eyes in the pleasure of the moment, I stifle the moans trying to escape my throat.

Damn you Janice. Why does this have to feel so good?

I let her continue for a few minutes before I start pulling my wrist away. She doesn’t resist my movements, just clings and then relents, releasing my wrist back to me. The bites have already started healing, only small nicks that have the crusts of scabs growing.

“Couldn’t stay out of trouble for five minutes could you?” I ask.

“What are you talking about? It’s been a day since I left here,” Janice says.

I frown at her.

“No, I just got back to the sofa when those guys came crashing in.”

Janice sits up and takes a long look into my eyes.

“Mary, I don’t know what happened to you, but I left here, had a night on the town before going home for some rest in the morning,” she says. “That’s how those idiots got me. Waiting until I was asleep before barging into my home and assaulting me.”

I get up and help her do the same. I open the broom closet to look at the still twitching bodies.

“If you want a quick snack, you could have those,” I say.

She recoils and sneers, her face growing ugly at the suggestion.

“I’d rather drain an actual fish,” Janice says.

“Fair enough,” I say and close the closet door with a shrug.

I walk over to the sofa and pick the book up from where it landed. Turning it over in my hands, I finally get a chance to look it over. There’s a dustcover I hadn’t noticed before, which belongs to the book I mentioned to Janice, but after peeling it off, I can now see that it doesn’t match what’s underneath. I feel the blood drain from my face as I read its cover.

“What is it?” Janice asks.

I shake my head at her.

“Then what is it? Why did you go pale?” she asks.

I show her the actual cover of the book, the one that was hidden by the dust cover.

The Abridged Necronomicon

“I don’t get it,” Janice says. “What’s this book?”

I sigh and sit down on the sofa.

“I thought it was only a rumor, something people writing fiction made up. Seeing this, having felt this,” I pause and shake my head again. Janice sits down and puts her arms around me, nuzzling my neck with her face without making any attempt to bite me. I lean into her and give her forehead a quick kiss.

“It’s a translation of a very old book. A very powerful book. Something I never thought I’d have a copy of it in my hands,” I say.

I turn to Janice, a frown on my face and take her hands in mine.

“How did you get this? I mean, I know it had the dustcover on it, but still. Why this book?” I ask.

She shrugs at me, and looks down to our joined hands.

“I don’t know. The book, it just was there in their room. One minute I was scanning the shelves and the next I had it in my hand,” she said.

I nod, picturing her actions. She’s fast, she’s also very accurate. Usually. The book did something. It did something to get into her hands and then it did something to me last night.

“So what are you going to do?” she asks.

“The only thing we can do. Run,” I say.

She pulls back and turns my face to hers. She smiles at me and pulls us together until we’re touching by the forehead.

“You never run. That’s not who you are,” she says.

I smile back at her.

“You’re right,” I say.

“Good. We need to find out exactly what happened to you,” Janice says.

I nod, thinking. This is where I lost a day. If it was the book’s doing, then it knows my home. It knows how my home is set up and operates. Not that I want to give it up and all of the power here, but I think I have to get away. I need somewhere which will give me the space to really examine the book.

“What are you thinking, hon?” Janice asks.

“I’m thinking we may need to go to the lake.”

The cabin is cold, the lights are not working thanks to no gas in the generator’s tank, and it smells like something died here.

In other words, it’s perfect.

Janice has found a place up in the rafters to wait out the day and I’ve been buzzing since those five coffees I got from the coffee house down the block.

The drive here wasn’t all that bad once we got off the interstate. The single lanes and back roads make me happy. Their curves and blind corners are far more interesting than miles of plain blacktop. Much easier to make myself to pay attention. Mom was the same way back when this was her place. I took it over when she decided it was time to move on, cosmically speaking. She always wanted me to have a safe place to disappear to, if needed.

And I think this counts.

I grab some candles from the small kitchen and roll back the rug on the floor. Mom’s old circles are still there, cut into the stone under the cabin. I take a few minutes to arrange things, grabbing a few more trinkets from the cabinets before settling myself in the center with the book.

Closing my eyes, I find that place inside where my power comes from and open it to the book sitting in my hands. The world swims away and I find myself sitting in the pages of the book. From this perspective, the words are buildings, tall skyscrapers filled with the meanings and powers of the book’s words.

Somewhere in between the word towers I see it. A figure walking through the words, stopping every once in a while and doing something to them. It takes me a few times watching it happen to realize this is the shadow. The thing behind the words, the thing that gives them power.

There’s no physical form, this is just an echo, the shadow of the real beast that’s made up of a thousand impressions. I feel it reaching out through the pages, the countless tentacles miles in length, the hands flabby with cosmic age, the acre great wings that blot out skies, and a mouth large enough to consume the greatest whales of the sea.

And as that thought crosses my mind, it turns and sees me. There’s no escaping, no running away. I’m in it’s world and it is on top of me.

It doesn’t stand over me, it overwhelms, or it tries. Mom’s circles do their job and keep it from consuming me soul first. After a few moments of trying, it backs off and tries a different approach.

For a change, I meet someone who seems to know how to handle themselves. It is good to see you once again.

“I know enough to keep myself safe, and what do you mean once again?” I ask.

If a book or word could smile, this would be it. A tentacled word reaches up like an dismissive hand and it proceeds to walk and lead away. No matter what my guts are telling me, I choose to follow.

So to what do I owe this rare pleasure?

“Your friends are after this book. I was hoping to find some way to get them to back off. I happen to like living.”

Ah. Many have the same wish and the same problem. Interesting that you have brought it to me, its source.

“So you can do something about it?”

I might. But it depends on what you have to offer in return. I have not been running a charity all these millennium.

If there was some way to pause and think about what was going on, I would. But this isn’t something I have much control over. Yeah, I can leave any time but it doesn’t mean I can return and pick back up where we left off. There’s no guarantee that the shadow will have me or respect the circles or even be here.

“What did you have in mind?” I ask.

These followers of mine. They need some…correction. One might even suggest that they require a redirection in their worship.

There’s a moment, a pause in the book’s thoughts. It’s enough for me to think about something that’s been bothering me the entire time.

“So they’re not doing it right?”

Do you really think they kept it right through all of these years? These beings of flesh? It is hard enough to contact them in dreams. And few of them have your abilities to get closer to the source material, as it were, who are not blinded by the desire for power. It is all very frustrating for me.

I gave them their instructions millions of your years ago. Even with the longest of lives, memories fade, words and meanings change, drifting away from their original forms.

But here you are and here I am, both with problems that could be resolved with a little cooperation.

Again it pauses, allowing me a thought for myself. There’s a lot going on here, a lot more than it’s letting on but I feel like it’s telling the truth. I can’t see a reason for it to lie. It comes down to one thing.

“How do you know that I can trust you? Trust you to not do with me as you will after I’ve passed your message on?”

The way I see it, we both stand to lose if there isn’t any trust between us.

I nod as I would if I were sitting across a real table from someone. It has a point. There’s not much else between us besides trust.

“Fine. How is this going to go down?” I ask.

First, you’re going to open your eyes and see that they’ve already found you in the cabin. You might break a few of their spines while you’re at it, since you’ll see that they’ve…well…I will let you have a small surprise there. But you will have to surrender, let them capture you. They aren’t going to be nice about it.

Then again, you won’t be either.

And with that the shadow lets me go.

True to its word, there are another half dozen of them in my cabin, just as stupid as they were before. Two are holding a smoldering skeleton and the third in their group has a oak stake in hand.

“Janice!”

Their heads whip around as I shout her name. The three of them standing over her body lose theirs as a ward sends loose beams jumping into their faces. The other three rush me from behind, grabbing and hitting me with something on the back of my head.

And into darkness I fall.

When I wake up, I’m in the lake, about ten meters from the shore and tied to a post. My arms are stretched out and my legs spread eagle. The pole feels solid, like it’s anchored deep in the mud somewhere below me. There’s a group of what looks like fifty or so fish-headed people on the shore watching. One of them, with some sort of weird crown steps forward and starts chanting. Around me the water churns and writhes.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I say.

A door opens inside my mind and I can feel the words and what they mean go spilling out. My tongue aches to try a few of them out. So I do.

Tentacles burst through the surface the water.

The fish-headed folks on the shore give a shout and immediately fall to their knees. I think they’re praying in a language that not even the stars remember properly. But I do. I know what they’re supposed to be saying.

“You’re doing it wrong. And have been for a while,” I shout to the shore. “Just so you know, you’ve gone and pissed it off once too many times.”

Their priest in the weird headdress stops and looks up. I smile at him, close my eyes and start intoning.

Below, the tentacles stop moving. With a very sudden shift they’re circling around me and reaching up out of the water. Several of them caress my body slowly, healing my wounds. One even snakes it way between my legs, the tip of it glowing. Other ones reach up and untie the ropes holding me up against the wood. I reach down and drag the one between my legs up, holding it between my thighs making it look like something I wasn’t born with. It stiffens and the glow pulses with my heartbeat.

For a second its very much like how Janice made me feel and I smile, remembering that these idiots are going to pay for killing her. I take a step forward and the other tentacles lay themselves out providing a path for me to walk back to shore.

I look up at the fish-headed idiots standing at the edge of the water, their mouths hanging open in shock.

“Today…today I think you’re the sacrifice.”

They scream as the water explodes with a thousand more tentacles reaching out for them. I don’t know what is happening to the others, but the priest is held in place for me. As I approach and he is stripped of his robes and made prostrate on the ground.

“I have some knowledge a mutual friend would like for me to impart,” I say and reach between my legs to the new appendage. It thrums as I stroke it, growing and stiffening even more. I like the sensation it sends down my spine.

“How do you wish for me to continue?” I ask.

It struggles against the tentacles, screaming obscenities at me. They stretch him against the ground and with a snap, immobilize him.

I shrug and get on with my half of the deal.

—-

I don’t remember much of the next couple of days. Sometimes when I dream, I catch a few fragments. They’re not very pleasant and some of what I did twists my stomach. But when I wake up, I remind myself of two things. First, that they were prepared to do worse to me and second, they murdered a sleeping Janice.

It’s not much, but it does slow my heart down and lets me feel some measure of justice.

I kept the book and every once in a while I go for a walk between the words, but the shadow is gone. It’s just a silly thing now, a storybook for those in the know. I’m not sure why I keep it, maybe it’s a reminder or maybe I hope to see the shadow again.

Back to the Stacks

I’ve switched from my novel to doing a bit of work on the Stack based RPG this week. If I’ve not mentioned this before, this is a RPG that utilizes Warhammer style careers but stacked in a related series. The plan is to give bonuses to those players who go through a stack without jumping to a different one, but leave it viable for those who want to jump around to get a more diverse set of skills and abilities.

This week’s work has me fleshing out the system mechanics and working up various lists. Lists of talents and abilities, lists of spells, and a list of skills.
Skills have always been a sticking point when designing. Do I want to have a skill for all conceivable player actions? This leaves me with a long list, the majority of which will never see any apprecable play, let alone do more than give some characters a smattering of flavoring. It doesn’t advance the playability of the game or the character. On the other hand, I could aim for haivng a majority and let the GM and Players do some clean up if they find something I’ve missed? That gets rid of a certail level of customazation I know that some GMs and Players really enjoy having.

It also leaves them with an additional task when creating a character.

With either choice, I’m often stuck on this part of the game for weeks going back and forth.

So I’m trying to do it different with this game.

Last night, I had the idea that the careers have inherent, but litmited, skills and/or abilities (whatever you want to call them) which are directly related to what the career is named. That is if your character starts life as a Baker, then obviously, they’ve had some training and expreience baking goods. In making this a rule, both the player and the GM can safely make the assumption that if anything baking related suddenly becomes important to the story, then this character has the capacity to deal with it. How well they can deal is where dice come into play.

This cuts me free from having to stick in a dozen or more of the more function style of skills. At the same time, it also keeps the sorts of custmozation and character flavor options in there, should the Player or the GM want to go that route.

Which is good. I like that I can keep the skill list short-ish. It means that players are going to have a better chance at doing things, more often because their characters will have the skills to do so.

But then there are the meta-skills.

Perception, awareness, search, and their brethern. Where do they fit in?

Anymore, it’s something of a rite for players to expect, once a session to miss some detail or clue because of a botched test of one of those listed above. It is disheartening and frustrating when it becomes apparent that this was curcial in order to get through the rest of the session.

That player part of me wants to eliminate those failure points. Move to something like the Gumshoe system which gives the characters all of the clues and then uses their skills to put the links between them together. It’s a nice solution which keeps the players invovled in the story and less involved in statistics and dice.

“But,” the GM in me interrupts, “what if the situation calls for the players to be distracted at a crucial clue gathering moment? Or if the GM feels they need to work for a clue to the plot? What then?”

In those situations a skill check certainly feels more appropriate but this doesn’t get us past the underlying dilemma — the use of randomness to advance the plot, rather than using character action to do the same. I’m not saying that randomness isn’t a part of RPG patterns, but I have become suspcious when it’s used for plot.

More thinking is needed before I come to a decision.

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Alternative character creation

From the first time I was introduced to the career concept in Warhammer Fantasy I found myself attracted to the simplicity, flexibility, and the power to really customize a character to my liking. But I have experienced several other systems in the mean time, all of which do something different very well. So I started musing what one might make when combining several different character creation system. And thus, the Character Stack was born.

The idea of a stack is bit of a cross breeding of L5R’s ranks and of WFRP’s careers. Stacks have three or four careers in them. Each career emphasizes a different set of abilities and skills that are unique to that particular career as well as a set of stat increases that are unique to the stack. Each career gives you a number of options to move on. You can stay inside the stack or move to a different stack. In staying inside the stack, you get the next set of stat bonuses (after buying your way through the new career). Go to a new stack, get a different set of skills and stat bonuses based on the theme of that stack.

Stacks are themed. Thief, Knight, Apprentice (wizard or priest), Scholar, Noble, Peasant, Streets, etc. Careers inside the stack are all tied to the theme and share many of the skills and abilities across the careers present. For instance, the Thief stack could have careers like Cutpurse, House Breaker, Smuggler, and Rogue. It’s easy to see where the skills all apply to the different careers. Now for a different view, you have the Peasant stack.  In that one, I could put careers like Servant, Valet, and Messenger. Here the ties between the careers are not as obvious, but if you think about how one gains trust inside a household, then it should become more obvious.

Career exits would also have some thematic tie to the career. I could see House Breaker and Smuggler getting an exit of Fence (from say, the Underworld stack) while Cutpurse and Rogue could have Vagabond (from the Streets stack).

I can imagine if such a character system was implemented, I would want to employee an buy system with some minor tweaks. As already mentioned, the stat bonuses would only come from the stack and would apply _after_ having bought through the career’s skills and abilities. Off the top of my head, I think skills would cost 50xp and could be purchased indefinitely, but have an increased cost each time. So the first repurchase would cost 100xp, the next 150 xp, the third repurchase would then cost 200 xp, etc. which makes it self-limiting. Each additional purchase would provide a 5% increase bonus to the roll.

If a character has a given skill from a previous career, they don’t have to purchase it again to pass the career, but they can if the player wants to.

Abilities are one time buys costing 100 xp each. I imagine abilities coupled very tightly to the career and stack themes and are along the lines of feats and class abilities from 3.x ed d&d or paizo’s pathfinder.

I can also see where changing stacks would cost experience. Maybe 100xp since the character is changing its emphasis. Staying inside the same stack is free. There might be a provision to jump to an unrelated career for 200 xp considering that a character’s story might change completely during the course of play.

Stack bonuses — it all depends on the system underlying this character system, but this is where characters would receive their stat increases. Each time a career is completed, the character gets the stat increase (and possibly a new ability or power — thinking of wizards, druids and priests here). The point being staying inside a given stack would give a more focused stat increase the longer the character stays inside it. The converse is that jumping from stack to stack, while not getting the same size of stat increases gives them a more rounded/diverse set of increases to the character.

Sticking with the Thief example from before. First stat increases would be to dex/agility, intelligence, fellowship/charisma, and combat — the next would be another increase to dex/agility, combat, and an initial health increase. Here they might also get a bonus to hiding or a backstabbing ability. The third again increases dex/agility, fell/char, some dodge ability or bonus thereto (again depends on the underlying combat resolution system), some bonus to lying/quick talking.

Ran out of idea for the fourth career, but I think you get the idea.

Also to make sure I’ve said it, jumping from stack to stack, you only get the first bonus from the new stack.

But this is just the “Basic” stacks — There is more than enough room to also do “Advanced” stacks which give a greater set of stats and abilities while putting less emphasis on skills (which was the point of the Basic stacks).

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That which cannot be removed

Dungeons and Dragons has endured a number iterations over the years, and yet there are things which have remained exactly the same. With 5th edition now looming I am left wondering if there are any parts which will be able to survive the changes this time.

The one big thing which hasn’t changed is the stat stack. The big six are known for the comprehensive and familiar description. Likewise, the range of those numbers and the fact that 1  or 0 is the bad end of the spectrum and 18 and over is the good end. Classic base character archetypes — Fighter, Thief, Priest, and Wizard. Levels, experience points, hit points, Vancian magic, and saving throws.

So what if WotC were to mess with that list? What if the big six were replaced with something else? Or if you suddenly had stats measuring from 1 to 10 on each of those? Would it still be D&D?

Don’t misunderstand. D&D is as much a brand as it is a system but which built which?

I am almost willing to argue that the system made the brand what it is. When one says D&D you get a certain image in your mind that encompasses a specific experience which includes some of those things I mentioned before. They may vary slightly — anyone else remember the saving throws of “Bend Bars / Lift Gates” or that strength could have a percentage rider if you rolled up a 18 at character creation?

It certainly wasn’t the same D&D from before, but it was still D&D. The big six were still present, hit points and movement still mattered.

But the twist is this. Even without the big six or hit points or Vancian magic, you could make a decent dungeon crawl based game. With the D&D brand, it suddenly becomes a D&D game. WotC has already done this to a certain extent with both some of their D&D board games, but also with Gamma World.

The brand in those cases is more important than the actual system that it’s been applied to. It’s not that something new has been made with the old, but that the old system was dumped all together.

So I think that nothing is going to be off limits for the designers. Everything, including the old sacred cows mentioned above, is up for the metaphorical slaughter. With this Legend & Lore column by Monte, I think it indicates with the “you play what you want to play” line there are a number of changes in stock for us old timers. We are going to be surprised, very surprised, to see what has been done with D&D when 5th edition gets published.

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How Wizards can get this Geek back

Wizard of the Coast announced they wanted to hear from the gaming community while designing 5th Ed. Which is great, but seems to miss the point. As far as many are concerned, WotC’s slip-ups and bungling of 4th Ed is reason enough to never look again. While it is tempting to be that sort of grognard, I think the company and designers deserve to know what it would take to get me to come back around.

First, the things that WotC did wrong

The PDF debacle

The digital world is here and now. Pretending otherwise isn’t helping anyone. Taking away the ebooks and pdfs did absolutely nothing to deter or prevent people from having a digital copy. All it did was take away legit sales. All it did was alienate people. All it did was create a PR nightmare that continues to this day.

Bad communication and inconsistent messages

What was the plan with 4th and why did it get changed so frequently? What was supposed to be the core books and which were optional? What was the difference between Essentials and the Red Box? And how were those different from the core? And what was the bloody point to it all?

If something changes this needs to communicated. If something advertised is impacted, this needs to be communicated. If something gets cancelled, this needs to be communicated. And the reason needed to be communicated, too. Hiding behind press releases and allowing rumors to get started never helps maintain a brand, let alone the goodwill of the gaming community.

Lack of support

It’s great that they went back and converted many of their settings but what else was done with them? Nothing! Where was Dungeon with the latest installment of an ongoing campaign? Where was the weekly “encounter” example? Where was free intro adventure to said setting? Where was Dragon with the interesting twist on play or class?

And in conjunction with my previous point of communication, it seems to me like there should have been a greater effort to make players aware of some of these things (if they existed, which I’m not sure that they did).

Subpar products

How much errata did they release? How many times did they forget to include necessary mechanics in their books? Nothing is as frustrating as finding that the part you’ve just spent three days searching for never made it into the final product.

Cards, minis, tokens, decks. AKA: Extras

These are distractions even when they’re the central mechanic of play. Remember that all of this started with pencil and notebook paper. Add some standard dice and that is all you should ever need to play. Anything less and you have broken RPGs. Substitutions do not apply. Additions, maybe, but they have to be optional and cheap enough to buy for everybody.

Even Fantasy Flight had to relent and give players straight up books with the card info in them in order to keep selling their version of WFRP. The point being we of the RPG world don’t like being forced into buying extras to keep playing. If we wanted to do that, we’d be playing Magic (and some of us still are). Keep with making the books the sole point of information to play.

What they need to do

Convince me there’s a vision

A D&D that’s all things to all players already exists. It’s called GURPS. If I want to play that, I know how to find it. And while I am fan of Monte Cook’s work, I already have the most recent revision of his best. There needs to be something new, something different, something cool about this next version of D&D.

The thing is, no company gets customers automatically. The execs of many may think they do, going so far as to see these people as an inevitability. But that’s not how it works. You have to earn your customers and their loyalty. Nothing stands out more in this line of thought than Gabe Newel’s recent comments about Steam and his business.

He is spot on about how the media companies are killing themselves by worrying over control instead of delivering the goods to people for a price they want to pay.

The same has to happen to the culture of Hasbro and WotC. They have to let go of the control ideology and embrace an more open paradigm.

Which translates into support, support, support

They need to step up the support of digital world. That means pdfs, ebooks, and the web. Yes, people will send these to their friends. Yes, they will be on torrents. And guess what? This will happen anyways. If Hasbro/WotC wants any chance to stay relevant, they must ignore the inevitable and provide a product that people will pay for.

Also, web tools. The character generator should be out front and ready to be used by any passing browser. Don’t make the gateway to your system sit behind a paywall or a log-in. Let players make thousands of characters for the hell of it. One or two might get turned into a sale. And that’s what the goal should be.

Anything else (GM tools, maps, etc) can sit behind a log-in. Freemium at the very least with a dollar or two for 48/72 hours of unlock of extra tools. Make the tools good enough, you can start selling week/month/year subscriptions as the word spreads. These need to be available at launch. No later unless you want to hear how this is just like the 4th Ed tools that never existed.

Support also means more than settings. It means having campaigns in those settings. Sourcebooks and gazetteers are nice, but nothing beats being able to point a player to a single source of everything needed for their game night. Getting set up is a chore and one that 4th attempted to solve. But that was solving for the wrong variable. The right one is having the story ready to go.

Even better would be to match what Paizo has done with Pathfinder and have a continuing, living, open campaign to draw the players. Pick one of your many properties. Start writing and have fun with it.

Acknowledging the past

I have no idea about the actual costs, but with the rise of the retroclones, it is obvious that there are players craving something of the old-school. And since there’s this gigantic back catalog there is absolutely no sense in not tapping it. In keeping with my first point, this also means digitizing it. Make it available and make it cheap. Suck it up, figure out the maze of royalties, and give your customers what they so obviously want.

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D&D thoughts

Yesterday Wizards of the Coast announced something which surprised almost nobody. That in 2013 we’re getting 5th Edition. What was interesting about the announcement was their seeking out input from players and fans of the ground breaking game series.

The question of the moment is will they actually listen to feedback on the playtest? And if they do, what will become of it?

I am doubtful that this will turn out the way most people expect it to. Not because the people behind the next edition are in any way closed minded about receiving feedback from the Internet. But because at the very least, the channel of information from the players in the wider Internet is going to be controlled to a degree befitting a corporation of Hasbro’s size and scope.

Because, and let us be honest here, the elephant in the room is Paizo. It is very hard to argue against the idea that we would not be looking at this announcement if it weren’t for the plucky upstart’s enormous and well earned success of the past couple of years. That WotC has announced that they are going to be following in their footsteps should have come as no surprise to anyone. It is smart of WotC to attempt to regain both the market and the hearts of players by doing exactly what Paizo did to gain them.

The fact that I think is being overlooked by this plan is that Paizo’s success came from two things which WotC does not have going for them. The first is the time at which Pathfinder was introduced. With the dissent of 4th edition in full swing and few retroclones to compete against, Paizo was incredibly well positioned to pull off a major coup. Which, as we can now see, it did. The second is Paizo’s size. Being as small as it is, Paizo is able to be dynamic and responsive to both the market and to the players.

The time for WotC to have struck is long since past. Market fragmentation, driven in part by a baffling series of confusing messages from the company in the last few years and in part by the removal of all previous versions of D&D from sales channels, is set. WotC is now in the unenviable position of being a owner of a brand which has inspired such loyalty as to actively drive more causal gamers away. Short of going back in time to prevent Paizo and the OGL from ever existing, they are now stuck with their subset of hardcore supporters and a harder sell to everyone else.

As for the dynamic and responsive presence, I don’t know. I feel like they don’t have it in themselves to win that fight. They can do whatever Hasbro let’s them get away with, but ultimately WotC and the designers don’t have the editorial or financial independence Paizo does. And they certainly don’t have the same trust of the gaming community they once held.

In some respects this pledge of openness reminds me of Blizzard and World of Warcraft. If you have ever spent time delving into their forums, specifically the beta forums, you will find any number of issues with the game brought up. Some big and many small. They have also gone out of their way to ask their community for feedback on classes several times now. And yet with all of this feedback, very little has ever made it through to the actual coders and designers to fix.

As explained more than a few times now by their community managers and CSRs who tend the forum, there isn’t a direct line to the devs. Nor was there ever intended to be one. At best the CSRs will gather up the biggest issues and most interesting posts to pass along to their superiors who, we guess, send them along to the appropriate triage teams and eventually to the devs.

That is a textbook case of how you manage a number of players the size of which WotC is aiming to have. Why anyone would think that Hasbro and WotC would do their forums and feedback any different is…perhaps naive or possibly fooling themselves.

Do not misunderstand me. I think it would be wonderful to have Monte Cook hip deep in their forums and responding, personally, to every well thought out and worded post. Or to see a change or three initiated by some player’s insightful suggestion. I think that this and the other announcements we got yesterday are part of their overall marketing strategy.


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Sands of Mars update

Since I missed updating last week, I’m going to dive into some updates to the rules for the Martian colony game that’s being slowly worked on.

Spent part of today rethinking my rules for Sands of Mars. There were some parts I liked and some that felt clunky. On the clunky side, there wasn’t the meshing I wanted when it came to playing become action. There was plenty of action, but I felt that it wasn’t as complete as it could be. Something about what we were doing and what our goals were didn’t quite get there. This, I felt, affected how much fun we had. Therefore, I went and looked at what streamlining could be done as I reviewed my notes from the playtests.

I felt that it’s been long enough since I first put things together that going back to the beginning and reviewing my thought process was the place to start.

So, for successful habitation of Mars, humans need oxygen, food, water, and shelter

 

Shelter can consist of additional items, namely stuff that makes the shelter nice to live in. we now have electronics, appliances, and furniture.

To translate into game terms: Devices needed to generate O2, and H2O, and provide an environment for living, and an environment for growing. humans on a colony are going to want to communicate with each other and with the earth; therefore additional items are needed. some sort of satellite communication gear and terrestrial system to do the same. And to run it all, power generation. Change this up, it can be nuke plants or solar panels. 1 Nuke plant == 5 Solar Panels <– That may change. will have to play with it some more.

[this is about as far as i got last time, feels incomplete]

Okay, so the premise is that the players control robots which go about building these things; shelters, o2 generators, H2O generators, communication gear. each of those are comprised of smaller components, namely mechanisms generated by nanofactories.

The players search the map for places to put these items (stable locations), places to get materials to build the mechanisms.

Collapse minerals and iron into a single field. That’s the ticket. Add the third type as Soil that has to be moved. A nanofactory will move it from current location, if it’s not Stable to a location that is. That takes a certain number of turns. Once moved (some token will have to be used here) then a Farm can be built.

Get rid of everything but the designated Radio spot. Collapse it down, make it simpler and easy to put on a sector.

Stable — supports one structure on it
Soil — martian surface that can be easily converted into a arable earth
Minable — There are raw minerals close enough or in the surface that make this an excellent location for planting a nanofactory to produce material
Bedrock — Supports two regular structures on it or one tall structure (E.G. satellite uplink, Nuke Plant, or Radio Tower)
Non — while the surface is stable enough to traverse regularly, there is insufficient support under the surface for building.
Unstable — Player makes die roll when traversing, 1-3 nothing happens, 4 & 5 loses 1 action this turn, 6 turn ends
—-
Players can plant a nanofactory on an unstable or non region if it has soil or minable, but that factory will be destroyed in X turns due to the instability of the ground. There might even be room for a card that will allow for the temporary or permanent stabilization of a sector but at the cost of production.

How long would this new game last? 1 turn == 1 month, 12 turns == 1 year.
Each robot gets 4 actions per turn. Actions are Move, Probe, Start Nanofactory, Start Building

Nanofactories and Buildings are done the same way, utilizing a machine colony that the robots have tucked away inside of them. Each turn, the robots can produce enough new colony material to divide it once — starting a new building or a new nanofactory.

Nanofactorys produce only one thing now — materials — therefore end goals have to be changed up. But more than that — Building require a certain amount of material PER TURN to complete. (More cards in the deck that alter/enhance/detract from this function of the game)

Material (Mat for short) is a

Buildings — Shelter, O2 generator, H2O generator, Farm, Solar Panel, Satellite Comm, Nuke Plant, Radio Tower

Build times:

Shelter: 2 Turns :: 2 Mat/Turn to complete
O2 Gen: 2 Turns :: 1 Mat/Turn to complete
H2O Gen: 2 Turns :: 2 Mat/Turn to complete
Farm: 2 Turns :: 1 Mat/Turn to complete
Solar Panel: 1 Turn :: 3 Mat/Turn to complete
Satellite Com: 3 Turns :: 2 Mat/Turn to complete
Nuke Plant: 4 Turns :: 3 Mat/Turn to complete

Enhanced by ZemantaMake the Nuke plant optional and there we go. Materials have been reduced to a single resource, getting rid of something I felt was too complicated. Locations continue also be a resource, but this time, they’re generalized giving the players some freedom in planning but also giving me the ability to mess around with the game tiles and the distribution of usable sites across them. Some playtesting is needed now to see how well these ideas work and so I can get a feel for the number of items needed for a “win”.

Investing and RPGs — A philosophic journey

Something occurred to me after listening to my employer’s quarterly meeting. What triggered this thought was the way the CEO went on about the investors and what he believes they’re looking to get from companies.

The thought was this: The RPG market has two separate sets of investors. The first group are those who spend money to get get games printed. Let’s call this group the Publishers. In most cases, this group does the work of publishing in the hopes of getting some return for their money. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot, and smartly, this group will see potential in lots of games and will spread the risk of their investment throughout all of them and hope that a good return on any one of them will cover the losses on all the others.

The second group invest their time to take the RPG and make it fun for others. Let’s call them the Makers. We can’t use the common economic framework of risk and reward to understand this group. Their investment is to create adventures, to host events, and to promote it among their friends and family. This makes many of the Makers fickle and loyal. They can see any one aspect of an RPG as the thing which draws them to it. Remove this one thing and you will risk losing their investment in your system.

Without the Makers’ investment, your system sits on store shelves, languishing.

Without the Publishers’ investment, your system may never see print.

What are these investors goals?

Obviously, Publishers want to have a monetary return. Although they may have secondary goals that led them into that business, their primary is to make money. To do this, your RPG has to sell.

Which leads us to the Maker’s goals. To have fun. To make something interesting to play. To tell stories. To entertain and engage with friends or strangers through drama and dice. To do this, your RPG must have a certain level of accessibility.

Boiling it down we end up in a situation where access has to be balanced against profit. Is there a good way to maintain this in the digital landscape? Does one trump the other?

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Review: Gears of War 3

The long and the short of it, Gears of War 3 limps its way through the final installment. It accomplishes the tasks of finishing the story and completing the journey with those characters you started with but does without any flare or conviction. In remaining so close to the hew that was cut with the first game, it fails to present a compelling vision. For some, I suspect that the familiar is better than something new. For myself, I expected the final installment to have the same gusto as the original and deliver a playstyle that is a fresh, different, and tactical as the first was.

Let’s start with what went right. For what we are given, it was given with an extreme amount of polish. The game play is buttery smooth. Controls are tight and responsive, just as you would always want them to be. There is little question as how easily your intent is translated into the gameworld. You don’t have to hit the same button twice to get that twitch action neuron saturated with all of the dopamine it can handle. The gore is wholly visceral and the crunchy undertones bring an unrelenting satisfaction with ever trigger pulled.

What cuts deepest is the solution to every problem facing the characters in the game. Whereas in the first and second games there were moments when brain mattered over calibre, Gears 3 presents one and only one solution to every quandary besetting your avatar. Shoot it, stomp it, or just beat it with your weapon. As true to the nature of this game it might be, that nonetheless gives me with little else to dwell upon. Am I to be challenged only managing my ammo stockpiles?

Speaking of which, we do get new weapons to play with but so what? There isn’t any new tactics to use them with. And, no, flinging exploding boulders from giant beasts of burden does not a new tactic make. I am disappointed in the big new weapon being the “retro” Lancer. How is that remotely interesting? An older version of the main gun used throughout the game which doesn’t share a ammo pile with anything else. Gotcha. Cool story, bro. I’m gonna be over here using a chainsaw bayonet to cut someone in half. You can stab the wall.

The point being that it’s a DOWNgrade to an already all-around good weapon. Why do that? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But that’s not the only thing that got a downgrade. You remember those monstrous beasts that you had to keep running away from in the first two games because they were so much bigger and required, you know, cannons or space lasers to get rid of? Yeah, those! Those were awesome because you had to figure out a way around them. It was cool to have to think through those sections of the game. You couldn’t just shoot your way through them like everything else.

Yeah, those days are gone. Apparently no one told Marcus that you could use regular weapons on them. He knows now of course, and so you get to use your Lancer on those pesky Brumaks and Corpsers that were the bane of the first two games.

Having bigger, badder enemies to kill is part of the Tao of sequels. Having gone through two games where certain enemies needed special, and I might add, fun weapons in order to bring them down I was expecting something new and exciting for the final installment. Instead we get an underwater section that was obviously phoned in. Shooting space squid hanging in a omnidirectional sphere off a submarine (how is this thing attached again?) is wasn’t exciting but regrettably pointless. Gears, as a series, was known for the visceral depiction of what the weapons do. Since most of the time you’re regulated to shooting torpedoes heading for your sub, you don’t get any feel for the weapon, let alone tear through countless hordes of foot soldiers the way you can with the Vulcan or other mounted weapons.

Enough of the weapons, what about the other half of the reason you play the game? What of the plot?

So stereotypical it hurts. I started to cringe more and more as the game went on. Faced with a dilemma of resolving the outstanding questions brought forth in the first two games, I feel the writers were tasked with coming up with new plot elements instead. It is otherwise hard to understand the option to jump fifteen years into the future, given that Gears 1 and 2 were set mere months apart.

It’s also hard to call this a resolution to the story we stared out with two games ago. What was going on in Gears 2 with all the experiments on humans that the Locus were doing? Did the sacrifice of Jacinto make any difference with the Locus or not? These are the very base of things which should have been addressed in the plot, but are missing and replaced with a brand new assortment of mysteries.

Like the Lambent. Seeds of that story are admittedly planted in Gears 2 but again that jump of years imposes a great burden for the plot which is not met. Going from moving, glowing blobs to fully formed burrowing stalks of exploding death is something else. How about explaining how that happened or why? There’s a great voice over to start the game, something to bring the player up to speed that events X, Y, and Z happened, but lacks an explanation of why the game is starting then and not at some of those pivotal moments that were glossed over a few seconds before?

Because of this, I find it hard to ascribe any importance to the events of the game. They have no context, no way to draw the player into caring about what happens. I am not suggesting that the game isn’t exciting, it is. You are thrust into battle, sent through lands exotic and strange. The familiar is made weird by change. And yet this is all window dressing, a hollow storefront that a play is staged in front of. Nothing more.

Also, suggesting that I needed to read the supplementary novels or comics is a non-starter. The game is the medium in which the story started. It should be where everything crucial to the story happens. In taking vital, necessary portions of the story out of the game, you have diminished the power the game has to tell stories. If games are to be held up and take their place with film and literature, then this short cut needs to be eliminated.

To summarize, if you liked the previous Gears you should give this one a chance. Rent it first and see if it can’t justify the purchase.