how to make your cleric hate you, vol. 1

There is no description of a fool, he said, that you fail to satisfy.

You went off to seminary. Spent three years as a novice, baking bread and calling the hours. You read four languages, two of which no one even bothers to speak anymore. You can refute even the finer points of both the Anacian and Jerevite heresies, convincingly. And you’re bold enough to carry the Word into the dark places of the earth so that others may know light and joy.

And your party thinks you’re a healbot, hanging around for no other damn reason but to patch them up after they do dumb things. You carry healing and grace with you everywhere you go; the common people flock to your touch. Turns out, you’re their healbot, too.

What stupid shit do they need your learned help with today? Roll d10.

1: Buddy bet him a groat that he couldn’t punch himself unconscious. Buddy lost.

2: Got drunk as a skunk and passed out with his legs too close to the fire.

3: Has all the STDs. Doesn’t want to have STDs. Wants to show you.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, oil on oak panel (1559).

4: Got drunker than two skunks and fell off the plowhorse. Still drunk.

5: Attempted suicide via crossbow-and-string trap.

6: Happy (human) mom and proud (human) dad are in labor with their first. She delivers a beautiful baby (half-elven) boy.

7: Shoot an arrow in the air. Whoever is standing closest to where it lands, wins. This kid won.

8: Snuck into the hedgewitch’s hovel and drank all the potions. All the philters, elixirs, and decoctions, too. Now freaking the fuck out. With miscellaneous magical effects.

9: Demands—demands!—to be healed of some nonexistent ailments.

10: Has dagger pommel lodged somewhere unpleasant. Swears he was just reaching for something on a shelf, naked, when he slipped and fell right on it. One-in-a-million chance, he says.

Shamelessly stolen from various emergency-medicine fora.


the pillars of a willing suspension of disbelief

These are the bedrock of how I make this fantasy setting work; everything else follows as realistically (verisimilitudinously?) as can be dreamt up. (While always maintaining a bias toward entertainment.)

Pillar 0: Gods are real. Not all of the gods that people proclaim as real are real, but there is a pantheon and they do interact with peoples’ lives on a daily basis (even if indirectly).

Pillar 1: Magic is real. It can be big, flashy, and everywhere; it can be hated, subversive, and feared; or it can be storied and rare. But it is never perfectly reliable and predictable. If magic produced the same result for any person who performed the identical actions, it would no longer be magic, but science. And that science would quickly become technology. Maybe there’s no predicting who can do magic or why; maybe it’s fundamentally unreliable and can’t be consistently replicated; maybe anyone can do it but the effects produced vary. But there’s something fundamentally unscientific about magic.

Pillar 1a: Magic does not change the human heart. Human impulses remain the basis of the dramatic, and the dramatic is what we’re here for. We’re all still the same people, telling endless iterations of the same few stories, just through different instrumentalities.

Pillar 2: Life is hard. Crops fail, and then the lord comes and levies the rest. The pox smolders through the villages, then returns the next year. Rains flood out cartroads and most labor from sunup to sundown to keep their families going. And that’s all with brigands and chevauchees and whatever eldritch creatures roam the badlands. Sometimes the dead crawl out of the ground.

Urs Graf, Tell Me Again What You Can Do for My Village, Adventurer? (1521).

Pillar 3: Violence is endemic and terrifying. Sure, ancient enmities between dwarves and goblins, orcish hordes, all that. Political and personal violence is sadly commonplace. But what’s most vicious is that it’s really about ecological pressures. With a variety of sentient humanoids all sharing overlapping, if not identical, ecological niches, competition for resources is constant and ugly. Eventually one race or another will likely win out, but that hasn’t happened yet, and it will be a red day when it does.

Pillar 4: Everything has an ecology. Most everything eats. Everyone lives somewhere. Some grow in the day and some hunt at night. Apex predators—of which there are many—tend to be individuals, but everything else forms families, packs, or colonies. Everything has a place. This is pretty easy for all the things we’re used to, but creates interesting implications for those we’re not. Orcs form warbands, but also have oatfields and settlements and mills and harvest festivals. Dragons have a large-enough ecological footprint as to warp the landscape around them. And that catoblepas has to be doing something in the 99.99% of the time that a paladin isn’t trying to slay it.

Pillar 4a: There’s a reason for that dungeon down there, and that reason isn’t “a wizard did it.” Excavating is hard work, and the use must justify the cost. It might be some beast’s burrow, or a tin mine, or the tomb of the magnificent and mighty, or an irrigation system. But there’s some damn reason.

Pillar 5: All evil is specific. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I’m going to go be wicked today.” Evil can be clever, or delusional, or callous, or lazy, or expedient, or even simply desperate. But there’s always a reason. Creatures always do evil for a goal. To gain something, or avoid losing something, something real or imagined. Evil can use good means to bad ends, or bad means to good ends, or bad means to bad ends. There’s always a reason, even if you can’t understand it from a distance.

Pillar 6: Almost everything is mysterious. There’s some impossibility, but it’s mostly ignorance and lack of communication. Sure, it would be crazy to believe that outlander’s talk of giraffes with ten-foot necks topped with a man’s head, but did you hear of the man in the cave with a bull’s head? People need to feel like they know the reason why things happen, and readily fill gaps in their knowledge with supposition and imagination. What are those fires that burn in the sky, and why does the world freeze every year? That toddler fell down the village well, but what child would just do that? Surely it was the wickedness of Goodie Kerrand, who lives by herself and quarreled with the mother that very day. When you’re like as not to never venture more than three leagues from where you were born, it’s easy to dream up what might exist out there in the beyond. The average person’s horizons hew very close indeed.

Pillar 6a: Perfect information kills plots. And Identify can’t identify everything about a hexed item, even if the rules say it can. How could it? How could an in-game spell tell an in-game character what the “+2” on a Kris +2 even means?

Pillar 7: PCs are exceptional. As in, exceptions to the normal expectations. And we’re not talking about “roll 5d6, drop lowest two.” We’re talking about people who buck the world and do what the vast majority cannot or will not. We call them “adventurers,” but no one else does. Highwaymen, blackguards, outlaws. Tomb raiders, freebooters, marauders. Looters, rievers, opportunists. Men and women like this are antithetical to order, to civilization. And that makes the common person—and those who rule over them—uneasy. In a dangerous world where stability is paramount, adventurers are a destabilizing force. Occasionally useful, maybe, but no one ever smiles when they come to town. And that’s just the business of carrying swords and killing things for private gain—leaving aside calling thunderbolts from the heavens or shooting inerrant arrows from the fingertips.

the banality of orcs, pt. 2

A bookend to a post on why orcs are all evil. Except maybe they aren’t.

Orcs are not evil. At least, no moreso than anyone else. Orcs are merely competitors.

In a world where humans are the end-all be-all of all things, everything is seen through a human lens.1 Humans want a lot of things (every thing, depending on whom you ask). Humans want water to drink and arable land to crop and grass to graze upon and byways to traverse. They also want the same lead and copper and iron and sapphires and spices and dyestuffs everyone always wants.

And that’s the problem. Orcs want all of those things too. And of those which are needs, they need them just as much as humans do. But orcs tend toward stupid, foolhardy, and unlovely. They’re just smart enough to seriously compete with humans (and the other demihumans) for resources, but not smart enough to consistently win, or even subsist. If they were stupider, more feral and beastly, they may have carved out an ecological niche not in direct competition with humans; as it stands, however, they’re in a tough spot.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Ain’t No Party Like an Orc Party, ’cause an Orc Party Don’t Stop (1609).

Orcs are always winning battles and losing wars. They have managed to survive on grit and strength and an ability to make a hardscrabble life of places humans care least for. Their strength has allowed them to survive, but never thrive. Their life is one of war: war against the elements, against aching bellies, against pestilence, and against everyone else who wants the same subsistence as they do.

And it’s not always blood-and-billhooks war, either. Orcs tend to get the shit end of the deal in trade, both in receiving less than expected from the cleverer folk and in finding few markets for their own goods, which tend to be shoddier than others’. Even amongst those who are willing to trade with orcs, the orcs can only compete on price: their goods tend to be simple, strong, and unsophisticated.2 They tend to copy technological improvement rather than create it, and always find themselves one step behind the power curve.

Orcs are not inherently bloodthirsty, any more than anyone else is. They simply have to play to their strengths. Where they can’t compete on technological or thaumaturgical prowess, in sharp dealing or collective endeavor, they can compete with fire and falchion and ferocity. But that’s a mug’s game, and they know it. And resent it. They resent it in the shit-smelling foetid marshes, in the howling tundra of the wild north, and on the scrubbrush slopes of arid mesas. They resent it in driftwood hovels and tattered rawhide tents; they resent it in their frenzied dances and childrens’ stories and hearts. They resent it when breastplowing stony barrens and when hauling poorly-coopered buckets of fresh water and when undermining dwarven fortifications.

Humans think orcs are evil because they compete for the same resources, resources that are “rightfully” humanity’s; orcs’ consistent losses in that competition bolster humans’ self-congratulatory impulse to attribute market failure to moral failure; and because orcs are, to human eyes, ugly.3

With many thanks to Frank Trollman, who put the idea into my head that orcs aren’t bad, they’re just evolutionarily obsolete.

1 Of course. We’re humans playing a game with humans in it: everything becomes about humans. Which is why, in these complacent latter days, our elves are just skinny, pretty human dudes, and dwarves are just short, stocky human dudes. I’d prefer, of course, my elves to materialize out of hedgerows and eat the baby in trade for a peacock’s tear, or whatever high-weirdness your crazy brain and centuries of batshit folk mythology can come up with.

2 Interestingly, orc-made farm implements tend to be pretty good. That plow might be heavier than you’d like, but it’s not going to chip off when you turn a stone.

3 Ugly things are evil. Obvs. Disney told me so. Also—and I digress—I enjoy footnotes. One of the oddnesses of blogging is that footnotes and endnotes become sort of the same thing, depending on the length of your post, despite the fact that footnotes are useful and good, while endnotes are the page-flipping abominations of information design.1

1 I can footnote my footnotes. This is useful for cascading digressions.

on treants

Treants are not the avuncular protectors of the woods.

Treants are wise in the way that hedgehogs are wise: they may not know many things, but they know a few very well. A treant is wise in the way of stillness, of the whisper on the breeze, of circumspection, and of patience. It is not wise in the ways of cities, men, manners, councils, governments.

Treants care about the protection of the woods in the same way that a man cares for the protection of a crowd, or the crow of the flock. To take or leave, if useful for a purpose or reviled for its nature. An exceptional individual may put the many above itself; most will not, will find the easiest excuse to desert and the kindest words to justify doing so. Each has its mind, goals.

A treant growing among others will tend to the wood as, maybe, a neglectful sitter. But one grown alone sees the wood as may a girl raised in a sculpture garden: ornaments, playthings and objects to project personality upon, inanimate and cold.

Treants are not moral beings. They have interests—in the nutrients below and the energy above and the structure that holds them erect—but not judgments. They neither support nor oppose men, except insofar as their inscrutable actions intersect the path of the treant. If a treant can ever be said to want something, that something would be strong roots to grip and hold the soil, height to reach above competitors toward the sun.

The popular imagination sees a treant as a bemossed elder oak, craggy and imposing. But treants come from all kinds of trees, anything that drops roots and lifts leaf to sky. Enormous witless baobobs stomp, monolithic and lonely. Flocks of quivering aspen sprint the northern slopes, incomparable colonizers. Ancient juniper walk higher in the mountains than any other, wizened and twisted with age and wind. Far-seeing communal eucalyptids spread poison to prevent other trees from sprouting.

One oaken treant represents all trees the way one bear represents all men. A tree will do what a tree will do.

an impoverishment of language, pt. 1

Weak, imprecise language makes for bland storytelling. If you’re playing a storytelling game (and we all are), which would you rather encounter:

“A huge group of barbarians is coming toward you dressed in mismatched armor and ragged clothing, some on horses. What do you do?”


“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a [] conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of [] reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. What do you do?1

No, none of us are Cormac McCarthy, and yes, this is probably too much text to speak or read in an actual game session. But both are saying, fundamentally, the same thing. In the first, detail and specificity are elided. There’s a horde of bad guys coming at the party, and that’s it. Any party knows what to do when generic bad guys approach: you attack. The cue given by the GM allows no other reaction: there’s no hook to parley or negotiate; there’s no detail to indicate whether the party is under- or overmatched and consequently convey to the party whether they should scoff, grandstand, deceive, or take to heels. Our games tend to be (over recent years, particularly) designed to encourage the perfect tailoring of challenge to PC ability. The consequence of this is that we have trained our players that in the absence of explicit indication to the contrary, every encounter will be a fair fight.

If you’re always guaranteed a fair fight, you’re likely to get into a lot of fights.

But consider the second. Yes, it’s likely too long to see use in any but the most set-piece of games. But it conveys information, tone, setting. The tone is what draws attention: no one here is run-of-the-mill, and the aggregate is just as interesting as the individual. We know this is a horde of savages.2 There’s a lot of them, many quite distinguishable. The juxtaposition of those in “the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform” shows us that there’s nothing homogeneous or regimented here. The warrior nonetheless clad in “white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil” shows us that he cares not about the significance of these items in the culture he is being contrasted against, or does and is wearing them for effect, or doesn’t understand their meaning in a culture beyond their purely functional use as items of clothing. (Let’s ignore what we can guess about how, exactly, this man got a blood-stained wedding veil in the first place.) While the bare paragraph is lengthy, each of the warriors depicted is described–in just a few words per–evocatively enough to be an interesting antagonist by himself.

Here, we get information. The horde is savage. They are “horribles,” great in number and fierce in aspect, armed for war but clad as though they care not for what fate befalls them. Armed for war–massacre and counter-massacre–of the oldest sort. They are fearsome: they wear bits of uniform “still tracked with the blood of prior owner,” armor “deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber,” and they ride down on the PCs “like a horde from a hell more horrible yet.” We get information. You can bet they can be neither greeted nor pacified. You can fight, or flee, and the odds are good you ought to choose the latter.

But most of all, the PCs have knowledge, and can use that knowledge to make realistic choices. There’s no treasure here, only the strong probability of having your blood used to daub crimson to a horse. Maybe the PCs are powerful enough to win, maybe not, depending on your party. Maybe you have previously given them a reason to stand and fight. But here, they know that if they do, they are standing against nothing less than a force of nature, the wrath of an angry god, the collective avatar of all that opposes civilization. Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than the first encounter?

1 Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (slightly amended).

2 Let us disregard, for the moment, McCarthy’s characterization of the Comanches as barbarous, if for no other reason than that everyone in Blood Meridian is barbarous. It is a book of “ever bloodier and more damnable outrages” (Banville) with a villain who is, “short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature” (Bloom). It is not a light read, but no one is more evocative.

how do you sleep in the woods?

Do your GM a favor. Tell her exactly how your party bivouacs when you settle down to sleep.

Night tends to be downtime on an adventure. The scenes get all the attention: the time spent moving carefully through the dungeon, the set-piece encounters, even the rolls on the random encounter table. That’s when the excitement happens. Usually the party is keyed up for a fight.

When was the last time your fighter fought without his armor donned, buckled, and settled? Your rogue with her keen senses and reflexes dulled by sleep—real crusty-eyed sleep, not Sleep? Your mage swinging that quarterstaff, out of spells, about 20 hours into the expected 15-minute adventuring day?

The PCs don’t get a pause button. It is an impoverished campaign world that sits and waits upon their actions. The verve a GM wants to create, the feeling of a living world, of not riding a railroad, is largely contingent upon the world carrying merrily along whenever the PCs are not directly interacting with it. NPCs continue along with their business—remember, each one of them is the hero of his own narrative—when the PCs aren’t looking. Monsters don’t stop hunting for food because the PCs bedded down for the evening. Indeed, whenever you’re not looking, your enemy is out there, leveling up.

So, how do you sleep in the woods?

If you tell your GM, you’re a lot more likely she’ll show you why it’s important. Do you sleep on the ground, maybe in that bedroll? Okay. Think about how you felt the last time you got a poor night’s sleep. How did you function at work the next day? Were you groggy, irritable, distracted? Now imagine instead of tossing and turning in your bed, you were doing so in a threadbare bedroll, on the root-lumped rock-bestrewn ground, in the rain. And then you remember that most carnivores hunt at night.

That campfire will keep you warm. It will cook your fresh food, if you were able to hunt or snare any, or heat up some water for that tea you remembered to tuck into your pack. It provides a cocoon of warmth and light, a small sphere of life in the brooding dark. The fire is seductive. And it’s even more seductive for those skulking out there in the darkness. An open campfire lets you see for a few yards around. But it can be seen for miles. Hungry eyes can see in, but after a few yards, you can’t see out.

Does your party carry a tent? It will keep the rain off, but now you can’t see out. As any child who has ever cowered under a blanket can tell you, that bit of cloth can feel like armor against evil, but any real evil knows that canvas is rent as easily as the flesh within it. And how are you toting that heavy canvas tent around, anyway? Did you take skill levels in muleskinning? And you thought your cloak got heavy when it’s wet out.

When all else fails, ask your ranger. Any ranger worth his salt will at least be able tell the natural lines of drift that unwelcome evening friends will tend to travel, set up a lean-to to keep off the rain, and dig a little firehole where the light won’t give you away. Your druid will probably just be curled up in the pine duff under an outcropping anyway.

Tell your GM how you bed down at night. She might be kind enough to send you some visitors. And hope your third watch didn’t close his heavy-lidded eyes, just for a moment.