It was the mountainfolk who had succumbed first. Theirs was a harsher lot than most, and upon that strife was borne a terrible desire. When the Faceless Stranger came to their homes, clad with cloak of starlight and air of ambition, they thought it was a travelling god.
It taught them new words; words that were hard for their mortal tongues to say at first, but upon which they would settle like old leather. It said these words were true-tongue, heaven-speak, first spoken when the world was good and whole. Soon, the words took hold — parent spoke to child, friend spoke to friend, stranger spoke to stranger. The sounds of these words gnawed at the fabric of things, scraping the walls and burrowing into reality.
In swift time, the words were spoken by all, save those who could sense that the speech was no true-tongue, but instead, dark carrier. They implored, they begged, but it was to no avail. Their elders decreed that only these words were to be spoken, and those who would not would be struck down with great vengeance. A meaningless proclamation for most, as dark carrier was all they now knew.
The words brought terrible anguish upon the mountainfolk. Disease and anger. Fear and distortion. The speakers were confused: had they not spoken the tongue as it had asked? Why did they suffer so? They entreated the Faceless Stranger, and begged in that selfsame speech for guidance.
It laid these miseries at the feet of the true-gods. It spun them a tale that their misery was the artifice of deities: pretenders to a pantheon that lay trapped behind reality. If they could only be freed, then these woes would surely be dispelled. Such was the mountainfolk’s lust for succor that they set about this task at once, performing the rituals and gathering the materials as demanded by the Faceless Stranger. Cryptic requirements, baroque and complex machinery, chants that lasted day upon day.
The work was swiftly finished, and those walls that had been weakened and buckled now shattered entirely. A final moment gleefully initiated by the elders that had walked many down a path of damnation. From the momentary breach stepped a beast with a million forms but no name. It consumed the believers in an instant, and oozed like tar down the mountains. Starving maws tore through fields and forest, leaving only corrupted wasteland in its wake. Soon the world would be nothing but that roiling black mass, endlessly chittering in that foul tongue.
Watching this onslaught was Ynpolari, true-god of revelations. As much as he supped upon the pain and destruction inflicted by the mass, he saw an end that was thoroughly unlikable. There was no flourish, no artistry and no intention to the beast’s action. This was most disagreeable to Ynpolari, who did not believe that such horror should be inflicted as though one were merely rolling a stone down a hill. He struck a concord with the rest of the true-pantheon, an agreement that they would unify their efforts for this one thing, in the interests of continuing the game.
The true-pantheon could see that simply destroying the creature was impossible — the energies required for such a task would surely break the world as well. Instead, they would build for it a cage of rock and magic, buried deep in the earth where no creature could hear its dark tongue. Entire quarries were emptied of stone as the followers of Metros dutifully architected and crafted to a divine design. Metros himself formed maze after maze, glyphward after glyphward, barrier after barrier until the prison stood complete: Tmygnrata-Pren, The Jail of One Thousand Walls.
Eventually, the creature’s dark shadow slid over the entrance, and the true-pantheon struck with great fury. The world shook and trembled with sonorous booms as the beast was driven down, down, deep below, into the shadows that would never see light. The glyphwards activated, the doors slammed shut, and the earth regrown over its surface till it looked much like any other patch of prairie one could find.
There it would lie, just beneath the surface, undisturbed for generations to come. Only one question still remained for Ynpolari: would there be a mortal dull-witted enough to plumb those horrid depths? Of course, he already had seen the answer. After all, people can only play Team Fortress 2 for so long.
So it feels like the pandemic is winding down, and everyone’s returning to a way that things were before. When I say this, I don’t mean that the actual virus is in check, oh no, but that people are doing more things and the UK government is allowing you to do them. It seems fairly likely that, come this winter, we’ll be in a similar situation of some form of lockdown — but until then, restaurants are open, people are travelling (locally at least), and schedules are again filled with crap that make scheduling nigh on impossible. For this reason, it felt like a good opportunity to do a retrospective on what’s been going on RPG-wise for the last year and a bit, and to elucidate my thoughts on the age old debate of playing RPGs online vs in-person. Ultimately, this decision is made by circumstance (you’re not playing in-person regularly with someone from another country), but I am lucky enough to be able to choose from time to time, and had a long span of doing things in person which was followed by the pandemic.
Like any good school essay, I’ll give you the summary of my points at the start so that you know what to expect. For all of the tools I’ve got, all of the equipment, the microphone, the software: an innumerable number of things to make playing online as high quality as it can be, there is still something fundamentally missing from the experience, which I think online play will never satisfy. While there are several delightful advantages, which I will mention in this post, I would choose to play in-person for the majority of systems where it was possible. Cool. With that out of the way, I can talk about why I think this.
A Player at the Table
There is something that feels like an inconsistency in my opinions of GMing, but I think is consistent. This probably requires a blog post of its own, but I like to think of my style as the “computational GM” — a rules-bounded method that is fundamentally reactionary. For me, I like to think of the GM as the engine by which the game is played, with all of the limitations and requirements of an engine for a videogame, or a car. A driving force that exhibits only enough control to move things forward, but does not decide direction. It’s a car analogy. While the responsibilities of the GM differ from the players in this way, that does not mean that the GM cannot have fun. It also, critically, does not mean that the GM is somehow ‘above’ the players. The engine of a car is a critical component, without which the car cannot function — but there are many other parts that also fit that description. Just as you cannot play a game of D&D5e without a GM (though someone has probably tried), you cannot play it without players either1. The most toxic environments I’ve seen for RPGs have been ones where the GM believes themselves to be some sort of god, author, or puppetmaster whose role it is to steer the players into the ‘correct’ way of playing their game. The game belongs to everyone at the table, and the GM is a player in the game as well, just with a different role.
Why am I talking about this? Well, I think playing online reinforces this GM-first viewpoint. It can feel like you’re sat in the seat of a control room, pulling levers and pressing buttons, watching a swarm of rats scurry through a maze. In a lot of online play, I’ll be spending time futzing with the software, getting it to play the sounds that I want, or leafing through character sheets and inspecting stats. The game feels less like a collaborative storytelling experience, and more like a videogame that I am in control of. I can place virtual walls and boundaries, and if you find a way of scaling that wall in the game, it is only (literally) by my hand that your token finds its way onto the other side. If I wanted to delete your character, I need only press delete on it and poof — it is gone. Does it need to be this way? Of course not, you could choose to use no software at all. Sit in a discord channel and theatre of the mind everything, have the players roll their own dice, but then we have a problem of engagement which I will touch on later. It’s a strange feeling, and this might sound like the ramblings of a madman, but I feel less like a GM and more like a sysadmin at times. I’m managing the software, trying to keep things streamlined for my users, making sure they’re not roaming around in places they shouldn’t be. To me, it feels a bit perverse.
When sat at the table, the only artifact of the GM’s primacy is a GM screen — and a lot of people will eschew that entirely. The ‘canvas’ here is the imaginations of everyone sat at the table — a shared creative space that everyone can have their own nuances and understanding of. The canvas for me online, is FoundryVTT. Maybe this is completely bouncing off you, and you’re thinking to yourself “These feel like limitations of software, not of the online component”, and you might be right, but I think the manifest spatial difference is important. At the table, people have faces. The GM is sat right there, with only a piece of card to divide them (if that). This is a space that is shared by board games, by dinners, by casual conversations. It’s a space of equals, and I think it’s something missing from the online experience.
I used to be brave. I created rooms, locations, spaces that were only constrained by what I could think up. When it came to game-time, I’d find some way of representing that space with the tools I had. Empty battlemats with squares, some absolute guff plastic tokens to represent furniture that I had in every rooms, Pathfinder Pawns and marker pens. This was my arsenal, and with it, I would find a way. The fact that these tools are so limited meant, ironically, that I never felt constrained. What I would show in the physical space with my tokens would be so far removed from the mental image that I wanted to share with the players, that I never felt the need for it to be realistic or even passable. If I wanted something to be a really big setpiece, I’d pick up some specific physical artifacts for it and that’d be a little treat. Otherwise, who cares? I trust my players to imagine the world as we’re describing it, and the physical tokens are just there to remind people of distances and enemy types. Were the enemy types properly represented by the tokens? Absolutely not — while the Pathfinder Pawns selection is extensive, it’s not exhaustive, and there were plenty of occasions when I wanted seven skeletons but only had five tokens. Guess I’ll just have to make do!
I used to be brave. Now I can’t play out a scene unless I’ve spent a couple of hours mapping it out. It’s so easy for me to make absolutely satisfactory maps with the innumerable mapping tools that I have, that god forbid we do something that isn’t mapped. You want to what? No, you can’t go to the Forest of Kelem’Dir, I haven’t spent four hours mapping it out and writing the journal entries in FoundryVTT yet. I’ll spend ages agonizing over the tokens, making sure the image is just right — after all, there’s such a selection of images on Google that one of them has to satisfy my relentless requirements. Suddenly, the space described on the screen is no longer just a mechanical aid, it becomes the space. I don’t need to use my imagination, my players don’t need to use their imaginations, and critically, the walls have been erected. “What happens if a token runs off the end of the board?” — strangely this was never a problem when it came to in person play. Everyone knew the boundaries of the physical space because you’re playing on a fucking table, but our imaginations weren’t limited to that. The Forest of Kelem’Dir wasn’t limited to a 30×30 grid, that’s just what we had for that engagement. Online though, why should I give you flowery and in-depth vocal descriptions? The map image is right there you know, just stare at it and accept it. Yes, that bush is real. No, those crates that I put there last time for a little encounter aren’t real, j-just ignore them.
I always laughed at how Critical Role was billed as being dynamic and an evolving story, but when they had encounters, Matt Mercer would bring out the most elaborate and hand-crafted of terrain pieces. It felt a bit like a food show, where they want to convince the audience that they’re cooking things off the cuff, but the chef keeps producing premade flans and yelling “STRANGE COINCIDENCE THAT I JUST HAPPENED TO MAKE THIS EARLIER”. I wondered to myself, if they did something truly bizarre, would Matt just bring out the felt tips and plastic sheet? Now look at me. That’s what I’ve become — I have to be pre-prepared for every encounter, and if I’m not, I’ll just try and steer things away from that. Otherwise, what will my players be looking at in FoundryVTT? An empty grid? After the dozens of maps that I’ve just thrown at them? How horrid! No, no the Forest of Kelem’Dir will just have to wait.
Obviously, there are plenty of people that play online and just use the most basic of tools to represent spaces. This could very well be a ‘me’ problem, but I’ve heard similar points from other online GMs. Things like the line of sight/walls feature in FoundryVTT feel fantastic when you start using them, but they funnel you down a certain direction. To use line of sight, you need to have walls. To use walls, you need to have a map, and to have a decent map with those walls on it, you probably need to have done it beforehand as the tools are a bit too finicky to do on the fly. You’re certainly going to struggle to throw a map together in Dungeondraft in time for your players to walk through the door. Foundry is a great tool in a lot of ways, but it constrains as much as it gives, and that’s something that I’m beginning to understand more and more.
Waste the Motherfuckers
Ah yes, the big one. The eternal problem that has been a problem before online play. “One of my players keeps looking at their phone and forgetting what they’re doing until its their turn, and it takes forever. AITA for shooting them in the face with a glock 17?” Is engagement worse in online play? Absolutely yes. You’re playing at a computer (most likely), and you need to have a thing called The Internet. Sadly for us GMs, The Internet also provides things that aren’t just RPGs — but a myriad of entertaining, soul-stealing activities. Those are the things that your RPG needs to contend with for attention, and those things have been finely tuned over years and years to steal engagement. Who’s going to win: you, or the thing that the ICO tells you to worry about? Spoilers, probably not you, at least not all of the time. The worst part is that it only takes a short lapse for it to be very frustrating for everyone else at the table. 20 seconds of missed attention, and then you’ve got someone going “oh sorry was it my turn? What just happened?”. This feels like slamming the handbrake in a session, and if it happens repeatedly, then you’re in trouble. Did this happen in-person? Yes. However, there’s more of a social taboo about whipping out your phone and ignoring everyone else at a table. Plus, it’s far harder to ignore people when they’re sitting right there, possibly talking at you.
There’s another side of this which I think is very important. Much like the experience of working from home, playing RPGs on your computer can make it meld in with everything else. You close the application you use for playing other games/writing/whatever, and you open the application you use for RPGs. The lack of ceremony makes it seem incredibly pedestrian. Whereas in-person play makes certain demands. You have travel time, you have food, drinks, a sense of tactility to the whole experience. Usually when I DM, I’m running things at my house, but I have to do a fair amount of rearranging to get it to a state where we can play: so even for me, there is a procedure to getting into the ‘RPG-playing-mode’. These things are important because I think they force your brain to change gears in a significant way. It also breeds a level of commitment to the game — if you just travelled 30 mins to an hour to get somewhere, you’re less likely to want to fob it off in the moment. If you’re sat at your PC, using the same actions, peripherals, wearing the same stuff as you were for the previous hours of consciousness, you’re less likely to believe that this RPG game-playing time is special.
I would even go as far as to say this extends to the very mechanics of playing RPGs as well. Rolling a dice in person is a very exclusive action unless you’re a compulsive gambler. You are highly unlikely to be rolling dice for any other purpose other than playing a game. What about rolling a dice online? Hell, I use my keyboard and mouse for basically every waking moment of my life. If I’m “rolling a dice” using those tools, then that activity has entered the most pedestrian, commonplace group that I have. It’s not just the feel of the dice as a physical object, it’s how we’re engaging with them. Physical, on-paper character sheets can lend a level of value that characters in VTT platforms just don’t have. A player is more likely to care about a character that they’ve physically had to fill in a sheet for, and have a physical artifact representing, than a character that could be easily copy-pasted a thousand times. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to care about a character you created in a VTT platform, that argument would be utterly ridiculous, but it’s a question of what mode of playing encourages what behaviours?
I haven’t talked about the advantages of playing online really, because I think they’re going to be fairly obvious. You don’t get COVID, you’re able to play with people who are very far away, it’s easier to schedule, and you don’t need to have a large-ish room to do it. There’s plenty more that I’ve missed, but there’s just an insurmountable point against the online platform. Fundamentally, TTRPGs are an incredibly unique thing — there is nothing quite like them as an activity. At a time where we have incredible technology driving videogames to be more immersive, more engaging, and more realistic, people are STILL playing roleplaying games driven by their imaginations and some dice. More and more people join this group every day. This says to me that videogames do not scratch the itch for a TTRPG, and until we’re floating in shared-mind tanks, I don’t think they ever will. Something else that reinforces the uniqueness of TTRPGs is the difficulty of describing them to someone who has never played. It feels impossible to put it into words without missing some fundamental aspect of the experience — yes, there’s a level of improv and theatre, but it’s not quite that (and some people ignore that element entirely). Yes, we’re playing a game, but you can’t really win it (though some RPGs might define that state). Yes there’s rules, but they’re not rules in the same way that Monopoly has rules, they’re more like a framework for thinking (though some RPGs might define some very hard and fast rules with very strict action spaces).
The things that make TTRPGs unique and engaging are the things that make it hard for software to deal with them. Computers do not like vagueness, they do not handle grey areas well. This is slowly changing, but for the time being, the realm of the computable is the plane of the rigid. The lovely automation features that FoundryVTT brings are constraining and shackling play to try and enable computation. Yes you can have walls and line-of-sight, but there’s these limitations and restrictions on types of wall — and you better not have too many otherwise performance will tank. You can have maps to represent the space, but there’s size limitations and predefined grid types. These little things are slowly but surely whittling away what makes TTPRGs a joy to play. They live in that grey space of uncertainty, where only a human mind (for now) can properly explore, comprehend and express. Weirdly the thing that made me realise this was happening was a module for the Pathfinder 2e system in Foundry that meant you could click a button on an attack and have it roll the attack, check if AC was exceeded, roll damage, apply damage and resistances. Surely I should want this, right? All of these things are just mathematical paperwork that could be filed away to leave time for the proper decisions?
And yet…it feels wrong. The ceremony of stating “I’m going to attack the kobold”, rolling the dice, stating the outcome…it feels like it is more than just the mathematical computations being performed. When a player says what they’re going to do, rolls the dice, and tells us the outcome, it comes more across as what they are doing. They are responsible for the whole activity, with the GM telling them whether or not their activity has succeeded. Whereas with a VTT platform, it feels more like we’re asking the computer to do something for us. The players are spectators to the computation that the software does, and in some weird way, we’re no longer in full control of the game. We have an additional player, the computer, doing things as well. This is a weird ramble, but I can’t fully express why that level of automation seems to be ‘too far’. I don’t think I’m unique in this sentiment though. It feels like the freeform, maleable, imaginative gameplay has been constrained to a box for the purposes of automating the shit out of it. When that box is there, it becomes much harder to see past it, and your choices very quickly become limited to what the software allows, rather than what you actually want to do.
Obviously a lot of these criticisms are targeted specifically at the automation software that makes online play easier — if we are defining online play in terms of “you go on discord, roll dice in person and maybe share images occasionally”, these won’t apply. In that scenario though, the problem of engagement is the primary roadblock as it’s going to be difficult for some people to sit at their computer without visual stimulai to remain engaged. Anyway, this is all a fairly moot point, because most people won’t be playing online at the moment out of choice. Just wanted to write down my thoughts on it.
1 Such wisdom on this blog eh? You can’t play a game without players, put that on my gravestone. I’m the next Socrates.
Long ago in a distant past, your matchmaking option for a multiplayer game with more than one person was thus: you went into a server browser, looked for a community server that was about right for your skill level (with names ranging from “NEW PLAYER FRIENDLY !” to “HARDCORE[XXX]RIPPERS”), and you joined it. If the skill level for the people in the servers was too searingly hot, then you disconnected and joined a different server. As an additional layer, these servers would occasionally have admins that would boot people who clearly didn’t meet the standard that the server expected (higher or lower). This was basically the case for most server based multiplayer games ranging from UT2004, Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast, to Battlefield 2 (which did have a quick match feature that I actually never saw function). If you sought competition above and beyond the quality seen in a public server, you would join the appropriate teamspeaks/mumbles (usually advertised by servers), or join a clan, who would arrange scrims through back alley channels like community forums. I was in a clan for Counter Strike: Source, and also an admin for a couple of servers, and this was the way of the world. Did it work? It seemed to, though servers without active administration would sometimes be very rough experiences, depending on what game you were playing.
Cut to the matchmaking apocalypse, 2006, and a surge in popularity for the console gaming platform. Instead of having console gamers surf through pages and pages of community servers, Xbox Live would find the game for you. Sure, it’d be hosted on your console, leading us down a peer-to-peer netcode rabbit hole whose stench would linger for years and years as companies realised they could save the expenses of hosting servers by instead giving players a far shittier experience, but you’d only have to press a few buttons to get a game! Clap you fucking impatient seal, clap! While ostensibly reducing the time to find a game, this system of matchmaking had an added benefit that players were now completely stuck within the game’s ecosystem. No longer did the developers need to release a dedicated server runtime which could be used for things like mods, or community hosting — if you want to play the game, you play on their platform or not at all. While this would take a few years to be fully realised, it would become the bedrock of practices like map packs and then finally DLC in general. If the company can control every aspect of your experience with the game, they can monetize it as well. And they did.
As the new hordes of players came in with the extreme popularity of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, developers would increasingly focus on these platforms over PC. This meant that PC would frequently receive the dregs: the terrible console ports, the abysmal netcode, and the dull grey-brown artstyle. This would be encapsulated with the 2009 release of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, a sequel to the server-based, delightful romp that was Call of Duty 4, containing console matchmaking, and horrific netcode problems. Even better than that, because there was so much local bullshit going on with the game, sometimes you’d join a match only to be levelled up to infinity, discovering that you’d joined a hacked server! Thanks Activision for removing the mechanism by which players could avoid that! At least these games now become unplayable when you terminate support because they’re all centrally managed, so we don’t have to experience the absolute garbagefire that was their multiplayer implementations ever again. Oh, you sold a remaster of Call of Duty 4 that includes DLC, and removed the ability to host community servers? Not just happy to release shocking modern implementations, but you’ll happily sodomise your previous titles too!
With this shift, however, there was a problem. Players would get frustrated because the matchmaker would put them in games that they thought weren’t fair. Everyone at some point in their mutliplayer video game playing experience has had a game where they joined, only to be flattened by a steamroller. No longer did you have the option to simply leave that server and find another, fairer one, oh no. In fact, a lot of games implemented systems to punish you for leaving, for daring to do anything other than complete their blessed match they handcrafted for you. Instead what happened is that people got mad, they got toxic, and they made the game worse for everyone else involved. This time, however, there was no safety net in terms of server administration or community rules — those went out with the runtimes. So now developers started to implement reporting systems, backed by algorithms: god forbid a human was actually involved in this process, they cost money. So now you have to rely on some opaque matchmaking system to find you a fun game, and you rely on some opaque reporting system to ensure that you’re not going to be told to terminate your existence every twelve seconds And what a fantastic job they’ve done of that.
I hold Overwatch up as the pinnacle of failure when it comes to multiplayer experiences. The absolute hubris of ActiBlizzard, that they released the title without a reporting feature at all, and decided to wheel out Jeffy Kaplan for a blubbing “stop being mean” video. Combine that with your classic soup of “algorithm curated matchmaking”, a complete inability to adjust your experience at all (maps), and gameplay that seemed intentionally designed to make people as mad as possible. Dust the whole thing with a sprinkling of a ranked matchmaking queue that made you watch points fall painfully off your rank when you lost, and you ended up with a community so toxic they should have buried it in Yucca Mountain.
Cut to 2020, and a rebellion occurred among the proles. The respectable frat brothers of the competitive Call of Duty community (who I will henceforth refer to as SugmaPhi) came out against skill based matchmaking (SBMM) for casual/non-ranked modes in their latest title. The focus of this was a tweet made which was (on paper) so monstrously idiotic, that it can’t have used all of the four braincells that SugmaPhi had to offer. Combine this with a series of tweets regarding the existence/non-existence of SBMM in MW2, where a SugmaPhi member embarrassed themselves into the phantom zone by contradicting a developer on the game. Everyone had a good chuckle at their expense, Treyarch got to have a few laughs about it, everyone moved on. Here’s the problem; if I was to read between the lines even a little bit, and try to put myself in the mindset of the SugmaPhi member, I’d interpret the complaint as “this game’s matchmaking is shit”. If this is the first time they’ve complained about the matchmaking in a series that has had it for title after title, then that’s the only interpretation that makes sense. Naturally, everyone leapt for the throat and screamed that they simply wanted to stomp newer players into the ground without a challenge: a take which was completely devoid of nuance and entirely fitting for the cesspit platform of Twitter.
Here’s the point at which I drop some hot takes. There’s a lot of complaining on the internet for what people refer to as forced 50% win rates. It is a complaint that you see very commonly against team-based games like Dota 2, CS:GO and League of Legends. To summarise it, it’s a feeling that the matchmaker is out to get you. Any success is to be immediately followed by crushing defeat, such that the player’s winrate can be kept around the 50% mark. This is supposedly either done by throwing opponents against you who are far above your skill level, or by giving you teammates (in team games) who are far below your skill level.
People who get awfully proud of their seven upvotes often respond with the following. “A 50% winrate means you’re getting fair matches, that’s the point of the matchmaker”. To which, I respond with the following hypothetical. If I put you in the MMA octagon for a two match extravaganza, one where you’re fighting a toddler, and one where you’re fighting Goku from Dragon Ball Super, would you claim that the series was fair? Interesting how the fact that your win rate coming out of that series would most likely be 50%, and that changes absolutely nothing about how fair the individual matches were. It’s almost like something is lost in the aggregate, isn’t it? It’s almost as though I could put together some of the most imbalanced, horrifically un-fun and painful matches in gaming history, and come out with all players maintaining a close-to-50% winrate. Here’s the thing: we know this. We’ve known about this for decades: this shit is codified. If these matchmaking algorithms are fixating on aggregated winrate as the strongest measure of how fair and fun a provided game is, then it’s no wonder that complaints about matchmaking systems are extremely commonplace. Here’s a radical question, what if matchmaking systems were optimised for fun rather than 50% winrates? What if it was possible to have players with 30-40% winrates, but were having great fun with every match? This seems impossible with so many games that make losing a painful, miserable experience, but I’d consider any game to be a design failure if half of the people in a match are consistently leaving it sadder than when they entered.
Alas, we do not live in the “optimised for fun” world. We can’t let the players have a choice in how they play, so we have to read the bones and interpret their will from the data. Do the players not like a map? Well, you could discover that immediately if you allowed your player base to select the maps they played on, thus demonstrating the worst maps by the ones that are never selected, but that would be choice, and we hate that. They’ll play on the maps they loathe, and they’ll have an awful time. You could allow players to self-regulate in casual play by letting them drop out if they’re really not enjoying a match, and offering rewards for people who are willing to join games mid-way through to fill the gap. However, that would be choice, and we hate that. We’ll make them stay in a match that they’re clearly not enjoying, and we’ll punish them if they attempt to leave. You could help alleviate the problem of toxic communities by giving players stronger curation controls, community moderation, the ability to blacklist players that they’ve had terrible experiences with before. Except, that’d be choice, and we hate that. Instead, we’ll match them repeatedly against players they’ve had actively negative experiences with, and throw them a wet towel player reporting system that has as much weight as our health secretary has credibility.
To be clear, none of these things make sense to have in a ranked mode. Elo was not made to create ‘fun’ games, it was made to provide a framework for ordering of players by skill. As such, ranked modes should be clear that they are there to do the same: at the cost of fun and player choice. The fact that we see these same systems coming into play for casual and non ranked gamemodes suggests how utterly mindless a lot of these decisions by game developers have been. Maybe it’s pure coincidence that so many of these algorithmically driven systems also coincide with gigantic monetary incentives (clamping down on mods and platform retention); I highly doubt that. Algorithms have been wielded as a cost-saving, money-generating bat that games have beaten players over the head with. Not sure why I expected anything else to be honest.
Encounters are the soul of many RPGs. They’re the meat and potatoes of several rulesets, the undeniable focus of systems like D&D5e and Pathfinder. Take a look at most fantasy rulebooks, and chances are their cover is depicting some sort of encounter. Dungeons, graveyards, city streets, outer planes. The sky (and beyond) is the limit, so why do you make boring encounters? Oh come on now, don’t pull that face; we’ve all done it. Define a room that’s about 30ft squared, add a couple of doors, maybe a pillar here and there, throw some appropriately statted enemies in and you’ve got an encounter, right? Wrong. What you have defined, is the RPG equivalent of the Street Fighter IV training stage. It is a waste. It won’t be featuring on the cover of your favourite roleplaying game’s rulebook. Here’s some questions to ask yourself for each encounter to try and avoid recreating that training stage.
How is the space of the encounter represented mechanically?
So, picture in your mind that 30ft squared room again. Let’s say it’s a room in a castle, and the players are making their way to some fiendish baron to sort them out. The room was a guard’s dining area, and so the floor is littered with cutlery, food and plates from when the players burst in. How do we reflect this fact in the encounter? Do we just give the players an opening description, give them the room as I just described it, tell them there’s six guards in there with weapons drawn and tell them to roll initiative? Perhaps, but in all likelihood they’ll have forgotten where they are by the end of the second round. If you’re playing in person, using more generic tiles/terrain, more likely it’ll be by the end of the first round. If we want the image to stick in our player’s heads, we have to give them mechanical reasons for that. So the question then becomes, how can we better represent this space in the rules of the game? Well, we might say that certain regions are difficult terrain — surfaces coated in slop and gruel might represent a challenge to traverse, so characters might have to spend twice as long to ensure they don’t fall over. That’s a start, but quite a few things are difficult terrain, and I find that just slowing people down isn’t terribly enjoyable. How about a 5-10% chance of them falling over when they run across a square that’s covered in food? So they roll a D20, and on a 1 or a 2, they fall prone. That might be a bit slapstick for your tastes, but as long as that chance is manageable (aka, they can move around the squares covered in slop, or can jump to avoid it), it should be grand.
How about a couple of the guards at the back have drawn crossbows, and kicked over a table to give themselves cover? When they do this, they scatter more of the food/slop onto the ground, and cause more difficulty in crossing the room. In doing this, we tell the players that they’re also able to do that (there’s nothing special about the guards ability to kick over tables), but we’re also mechanically reminding them of where the encounter is taking place. Naturally, these are factors that we’ll need to take into account when talking about the difficulty of the encounter (two crossbow wielding guards in a well-defended position is going to be a higher difficulty than them standing point blank). How about as a last addition, we add a bubbling cauldron of stew in the middle of the room, that was in the process of being ladled out when the players burst in. A smart player might see this as an opportunity to throw or shove a guard into it, and we might say that the cauldron causes 1d6 or 2d6 fire damage from when they fall into the scolding fluid.
This might all seem a bit simple, but in the process of doing this, we’ve created an encounter that is firmly tied to its location. There are mechanical elements at play that are attached to unique circumstances of the space, and we reward players for keeping a narrative picture in their head. The idea of setup and payoff is one that appears throughout fiction, and one that we can apply here. We setup the bubbling cauldron by describing it when they enter the room — taking care not to lampshade its existence too strongly, otherwise it becomes more of a DM instruction than a player revelation. An engaged and imaginative player then correctly positions that part of the description as a mechanical opportunity. That player might then take actions to enable themselves to use that opportunity as it has been given, maybe they run for the pot, maybe they grab hold of the nearest guard and start making their way over to it. We achieve payoff when the player takes the appropriate action, in this case throwing/shoving the guard into the cauldron, and we give them a mechanical benefit (2d6 fire damage) for doing so. Everyone wins in this scenario, apart from the guard. The player is happy, because they now feel like they’re playing in a complex world where opportunities are available to them beyond purely swinging a sword, and they’ve done something cool. The DM is happy because a player has paid attention to the world and the space, and has utilized a tool that we made available to them.
I believe I’ve said this before, but the ability to interact in complex ways with a game environment is one of the stand-out features of tabletop play, that videogames have not even come close to touching. By thinking about how our encounter spaces impact the game mechanically, we not only ensure that our players must keep the image of that space in their head during play, but we give them opportunities to exploit that space to their ends. It also gives the DM opportunities to demonstrate intelligent behaviours from their adversaries. If the players aren’t making use of that bubbling cauldron of slop, what’s to say a guard doesn’t try and throw one of the players into it?
What are the stakes?
There are a few RPG systems that ask you to setup the stakes for any roll that you do. In a nutshell, what is the price of failure here? What do the players stand to lose, and what do they stand to gain? However, this is not purely a question that we need to answer for the outcomes of rolls — I think this is a question that we should be asking for each of our encounters. In a lot of cases, the stakes are going to be ‘the lives of the players’. The expectation from our players is normally going to be that if they “fail” an encounter, their characters will be slain or captured. This is normally enforced by the system that we’re playing, but it is distinctly boring to have that be the only thing on the line. What am I talking about here? Let’s set up a room:
Now deep in the bowels of Baron Unspeakable's horrid abode, you open an iron door to an active and bustling foundry. Iron chains hang from the ceiling, while large buckets of molten metal are carried aloft by churning machinery. A collection of soot-stained metalworkers carrying forge tools work on orange-hot bars, while clanking conveyor belts haul scrap into a scorching furnace below. As you enter, several of them pick up these half-finished weapons, and wield them with grim intent.
So far, so good. We’ve got an interesting environment, with plenty of opportunity for peril, and plenty of opportunity for complex interactions. Maybe the players manage to divert one of those buckets to dump its contents over a metalworker? Maybe one of the metalworkers attempts the same, and the players have to make a save to avoid being horribly scorched? However, the stakes are still the same as last time: their lives. Let’s add a sentence or two that will completely change the energy of this encounter…
A glint catches your eye from one of the conveyor belts at the back of the room. It looks like a large, radiant metal sword has been thrown in amongst the scrap metal, and is slowly making its way into the furnace.
Ho ho, oh boy. Most players will fall into one of two camps here: one camp will treat that sword like it’s an additional bonus — if the chance to get it arises, then they’ll take it, otherwise no sweat. The other camp will attempt to get that sword no matter what, even if it possibly imperils the entire party. The lesson here is that there are things that matter to players beyond just life and death scenarios, they just have to be established properly. A world in which the players are up to their armpits in fantastically powerful magical swords won’t be the best atmosphere for the scenario above, but one where loot has been somewhat scarce, and the party is absolutely jonesing for a power boost? They’ll kill themselves going for it. Again, this is a case of setups and payoffs. We setup the scene by describing how this incredibly dangerous environment (a foundry full of sharp weapons and hazards) holds a potential reward for them. We introduce tension by demonstrating how this potential reward is in jeopardy (the fall into the furnace), and how the player party will have to act quickly to acquire an additional reward for completing the encounter. The payoff is where they either get the sword, or watch as it falls into the foundry and is destroyed. Now we have multiple layers of failure state, beyond the ones given to us by player death — some players who manage to survive the encounter, but lose the sword, will consider that a failure. Perhaps they begin to think about how they can stop the sword from falling into the foundry by using their toolkits, and the environment around them.
The idea here is to think about how we can affect the party in ways that isn’t simply reducing their health. Taking away their items is normally a sure-fire way to piss someone off, but destroying potential loot is far more acceptable to most. If the players are particularly attached to an NPC, what happens when that NPC is put into a dangerous situation and they have to choose between their own safety, and that of the NPCs? What about a location they like? They’re fighting in a house where the walls are on fire, and they have to choose between extinguishing the flames and causing damage as normal. Your mileage will vary on these things, and you might have players that are extremely unhappy with a location they’ve spent time and effort on being burned to the ground. I think the DM’s role here is to find interesting ways to add stakes to encounters that go above and beyond ‘fight or die’. Videogames typically have that and only that, but we can do better.
How does this encounter differ from the one before or after?
In my mind, there’s two sorts of bad encounter. There’s the kind of encounter where the players feel frustrated by what they’re experiencing. A classic example of this is most invisible enemy encounters in D&D5e — a heady mix of fairly abysmal rules when it comes to invisibility, and a feeling of “throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks” with regard to defeating it. There are ways of avoiding this, but some of the worst encounters I’ve ever run have used invisibility enemies, and I’d never do one without being very sure that what I’ve included makes it much less painless. The second type of bad encounter is the pedestrian encounter — an encounter that is extremely forgettable, that is only included for the sake of having one. Well, we’ve been playing for a few hours this session and we’ve yet to have a swordfight, so we’re going to have one. I’ll throw in some generic, level-appropriate enemies, we’ll bring out a 20×20 ft. space, and the next hour will be spent rolling combat dice. Now, there are some campaign settings where this sort of encounter feels unavoidable. If you’re playing a sandbox-style one, you’re probably going to have random encounter tables, and you’ll probably want regular encounters for travel. This is mostly because, as the DM, a sandbox-style experience is going to be player driven — you’re not going to be able to say, we’ll have an encounter on X mountain because you’re not going to know if they’re going to that mountain. What you ARE able to say, is “if they go to a mountain, we can have this kind of encounter”.
I’m digressing here. My hot take here is that there is nothing more damaging to a RPG session than a pedestrian encounter. When you’re in the more freeform modes of play (exploration, downtime) that D&D5e and Pathfinder offer you, there’s a chance for players to jump in when they so desire. A DM in these situations can (and should) be shunting the spotlight around to keep everyone engaged and active. When you’re enslaved to the turn order however, a player knows that when their turn has passed, it’s going to be a while before they get to act again. Their brain drifts onto other things, maybe they look at their phone. The turn comes back to them: “sorry what was the last thing that happened?”. They have to spend time looking at the game state and then taking their turn, during which the other players are possibly undergoing the same process. This sucks for everyone at the table. So the question becomes “what makes an encounter pedestrian?”. Apart from ignoring the points above that we’ve already covered, I’d say that the fastest way of doing it is by having the same sort of encounter play out again. Imagine in our dining room scenario, the party moves on through the next doorway, and they’re in another room with four or five guards. How is this meaningfully different from the previous encounter? We have to think of ways to keep it different, and if we can’t think of a way, then it’s better to not have an encounter at all. If you can’t think of a way to make an entire castle’s worth of encounters interesting, then don’t have an entire castle’s worth.
If the concern is that you’re playing an XP-based system, and you need the players to be a certain level for some content, then you can always use other mechanisms of granting XP. Pathfinder 2e enables the DM to grant arbitrary XP based on ‘accomplishments’, which are vague enough in scope that you can give them for basically anything. Again, I would rather give my players 120XP for absolutely nonsense reasons, rather than have them play an encounter for the sake of giving them that XP. So, we have to find a way of keeping each encounter fresh, and distinct from the encounters adjacent to it. In our case, perhaps after the Dining Room is a corridor through to some sort of alchemical laboratory? Perhaps this room has been enchanted with some haywire magic, and each round causes the room to flip the characters from floor to ceiling? Maybe it’s a room that suppresses fire, or even amplifies it, adding +1d6 damage? The ability to customise monsters, monster composition in encounters, and the encounter space gives us enormous scope to come up with various distinct kinds — the main limitation is going to be your ability to come up with them. Again, if you’re slow to design encounters, this isn’t a reason to create several that are very similar. It’s a reason to take more time between sessions for prep, it’s a reason to find alternative mechanisms to grant players the rewards you wanted to give them through encounters. If you’re playing a combat-based RPG, you’re going to want your players to remember your encounters, otherwise they’re not going to remember a large percentage of the game.
Where is the motion?
This one might seem a bit esoteric at face value, but bear with me here. I think the difference between a good encounter and a great encounter is a source of motion. Again, one of the worst experiences you can have in a combat-focused RPG is the sense that you’re all stood around a monster swinging your wiffle-bats at it, and chipping away at a health bar. This is again, MMO videogame shite. We can do better. Let’s take a look at the D&D Monster Manual
Apart from the fact that this is extremely good art, the art is absolutely packed to the gills with motion. The beholder is literally bearing down on them, occupying almost all of the space. We see the dwarf, tilting his body away possibly to strike, or possibly in fear. We see a fighter (?) throwing their hand up, having either delivered a blow, or readying a mighty swing. This image is absolutely PACKED with motion, even in the environment.
This is what we want our encounters to be. Fluid. Dynamic. Changeable. If we have slow enemies, we never want them to feel static or statue-like, we want them to feel inexorable. If we have fast enemies, we want them to demonstrate that: have them move around, jump over obstacles, scrabble over walls. If something has climb, make it climb. It something has burrow, make it burrow. If something’s a swarm, give it something to swarm over or out of. If your players are walking into a room, and there’s just a whole pile of spiders sat in the middle of it, that’s some distinctly MMO nonsense. Have them enter the room, weapons raised, then realise in horror that the shadows in the corners are actually countless piles of the bastards. Now, D&D5e has mechanics that make this fluid motion more difficult (because of the prevalence of opportunity attacks), but you should still do it. Have the enemies eat opportunity damage sometimes, because it’s worth it to maintain that feeling of energy and momentum to the encounter. If your enemies are moving, your melee players are moving. If your ranged players don’t have a reason to move, give them a goddamned reason to move. My favourite style of motion for this is the ‘slowly collapsing room’, where you have sections of a room slowly fall down, meaning that the players have to pay attention to the space, but also spend valuable time moving or getting uncomfortably close to the enemies. If players aren’t having to make difficult decisions when it comes to not moving, or moving and possibly putting themselves in danger, then you’re missing a trick.
In our dining room example, the source of motion is going to come from the tumbling piles of food and the characters falling over. We want that encounter to turn into something resembling Glastonbury, where slop covered swordsman fight in the remains of a shepherd’s pie. We want our guards to be tripping, shoving, attempting to throw them into cauldrons. In our foundry/smelting room example, our motion is going to come from the machinery — the buckets of molten metal, the conveyor belts, etc. We want our players to be evaluating if where they’re standing right now is the best place, and we probably don’t want that to be more than one turn in a row. We want buckets of molten metal falling from the chains, spreading hazardous surfaces across the floor. We want characters getting nailbitingly close to the edges that could send them into the roiling fire below. I watched a critique from a well-known Youtuber who said that they couldn’t understand why anyone would ever not use the three action variant of magic missile in Pathfinder 2e (where moving costs an action, so the caster is electing to stand still). This is a person who is playing encounters that largely involve people standing still, throwing hands and magic at each other. If you don’t have a reason why anyone would ever want to cast a lower power version of a spell to have the ability to move, I have three words for you. Slowly. Falling. Ceiling. I can count those reasons in D6s of bludgeoning damage.
If you’re sat there, thinking to yourself “but I want to set an encounter in a forest, and I don’t know where that sort of motion is going to occur”, then I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. Speaking of which.
Am I putting setting/worldbuilding before gameplay?
Let me deliver unto you one last steaming hot take. Every encounter should be designed in terms of what is fun and interesting first, and in terms of your world/setting/campaign materialsecond. What do I mean by this? Well, if you’re intending to set your campaign in a gigantic desert, and you don’t have enough ways of mechanically making that desert fun and engaging when it comes to encounters, then you shouldn’t set it in a desert! If your approach to designing the baron’s castle is thinking in terms of which a castle should historically have to be accurate, then working out how to make that fun and interesting afterwards, you’re going to end up with a boring session/campaign. I don’t particularly care if it “makes sense” that a castle would have three consecutive rooms of guards before anything of value, or if the alchemist’s stuff really should be in a different building — we want to make something that is fun and engaging first, then create narrative reasons to allow for that. Maybe the alchemist is best buds with the Baron? Maybe there’s very few guards because it’s a bank holiday, and they’re all down at Ed’s Easy Diner. Does this mean that there’s probably going to be plot-holes or nitpicks that people can make? Absolutely. I’d rather have a campaign that people can nitpick holes in, but ultimately still thoroughly enjoyed, over a campaign that never got off the ground because there was a complete lack of engagement.
If you think it’s fun to have an encounter with flying enemies inside the castle, then design that encounter and figure out a way of fitting it in. Note that I’m not saying you should have an absolute wacko-universe where gargantuan dragons come flying out of cupboards, what I’m saying is that your first intent should be to create an engaging encounter. I’ll forgive a cupboard dragon if the fight afterwards is the greatest goddamn thing I’ve ever played. You’ve got to find a way of making your desert campaign ‘pop’ when it comes to mechanics and gameplay — if you can’t, then it doesn’t matter how good your desert lore and worldbuilding is, it’ll die before the start of the fourth session. I don’t play your worldbuilding, I don’t play your maps or your homebrew languages; I play the game as it stands before me. Give me a thousand cupboard dragons over one day trawling a mechanically dull and unengaging desert.
I got a bit rambly towards the end there, but there you go. Some questions to ask yourself.
There are a few signifiers of a good home to me. A warm, cozy atmosphere. A good amount of natural light, coming through large, open windows. The sounds of nature, of birdsong, and of rustling trees. A copy of Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun on a bookshelf. It’s the little things, you know? There used to be a time, a glorious time, where there was a subset of PC games that you’d expect everyone to have in their collection. Tiberian Sun was one of them, Red Alert 2 would be another. Age of Empires II is another obvious choice, followed by the more divisive (but simply superior) Age of Mythology. The obvious Blizzard staple of Warcraft III, and the lesser played but still important Rise of Nations and Empire Earth. Naturally, we can’t forget about Total Annihilation. Homeworld too. Of course you would, why wouldn’t you? Can’t forget about Ground Control, either. Then there were the other games. DOOM, Star Wars: X-Wing Vs Tie Fighter and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Diablo II. Fine games, fine games…but they just weren’t strategy, you know? Sure, you’d lose a few hours playing with your lightsabres and joysticks, but the strategy genre was where gaming was really at. That’s where the money was, and publishers would throw game after game into it. Remember when franchise tie-in games were RTSs? Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth? Star Trek Armada?Dune? Star Wars: Force Commander?Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds?Army Men: RTS?
The year is 2021, the Real Time Strategy genre is dead, and I am sad.
It’s interesting to me how the discourse surrounding the RTS genre is no longer one of ‘is it dead?’, and is instead ‘how did it die’. Nobody is under any delusions here, nobody’s waiting for the last minute three-pointer, nobody’s hoping for a new entry to the C&C series which reminds everyone what the RTS genre was about. It’s dead, it’s buried. There’s nothing left but tired remakes, remasters, and tire-spinning. How did it come to this? How did we go from the greatest PC games that one can own being in the RTS genre, to what we have now? I’ll talk about my theory on that in a moment, just let me lament some more. Eurgh. Eurgh. You know what the worst part is? The death of the RTS genre wasn’t some heroic final stand, sword in hand, howling to its gods. It’s been a slow, painful, miserable death that has spanned over a decade. An inxorable decline, a treadmill of games that have just been slightly worse each time, to the point where they’re no longer recognisable. I’ll use the Command and Conquer series as the archetypal example here. Let’s break it down. I’m only going to talk about the ‘major’ games in franchise, rather than say, Renegade or expansion packs.
Command and Conquer (1995) – the granddaddy, the OG, the original, the definitely came after the Dune series but it’s the one everyone talks about. Left click command, right click conquer (well, control schemes back then actually had left click do everything, and right click to deselect units…). A great start.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996) – We’re beginning to cook with gas. The nonsense storyline, the bizarre FMVs using real-world figures. The idea of country sub-factions within the greater factions of the Allies and Soviets. It’s all good, and it’s only getting better.
Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999) – We’re back to the original game’s universe with the GDI and NOD. The world is fucked, the graphics are excellent, the unit design is awesome, the controls are amazing. NEW CONSTRUCTION OPTIONS bellows out of a pair of beige coloured desktop speakers. I’m sat at my grandparents PC, playing the skirmish mode. By default, this mode didn’t begin with the SCV, so there was no base building. Child-me was confused, was this it? Just a collection of units shooting each other, the victor decided in a few minutes?
I enable the bases mode. My eyes widen, the dopamine flows. BUILDING. I’m in. My little disk throwing boys are yeeting exploding frisbees at NOD cyborgs. I’m terrified of most of the fauna, the little blob enemies are beyond my comprehension. I shoot them with railguns.
It is glorious. I play the skirmish mode for hours, before even knowing there’s a full campaign to be had. I discover the campaign, and yet more hours are thrown into the void. The graphics, the gameplay, the barks. It’s all so compelling, so cool. How can they ever top this?
Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 (2000) – They topped it. When people think of the series, this is the game that they think of. The most bananas storyline, the most bizarre unit design. And my god the soundtrack, the soundtrack. Frank Klepacki delivering glorious auditory bliss with every note. FMVs so cheesy that they’ll curl your toenails, but who cares, it’s perfection. Utter utter perfection. The voice acting, so good, so corny that I can recall lines from it over twenty years after the fact.
There’s just so much to love about this game. So much stuff that was near-perfect design. Sure the Yuri’s Revenge expansion introduced a faction that is probably the most busted one the RTS genre has ever seen, but who cares? Balance? What the fuck is that? Daily reminder that the allies had the chrono commando, a unit that could literally traverse the entire map instantly in a single click, and deleted any other unit from existence. Oh also it could C4 buildings. Just look at it.
I could talk about Red Alert 2 forever, but I won’t. Not yet. This story is too sad for that.
Command and Conquer: Generals (2003) – Is it as good as Red Alert 2? No. Has it aged poorly, as this was Westwood’s attempt at doing a ‘contemporary’ game? …Yes. Is it an absolutely fantastic RTS, with a still completely bonkers story? Yes. Ah yes, American tank divisions, this seems famili- oh you’ve strapped laser defence towers to them, oh and the Chinese faction has a megatank that blasts propaganda out, alongside an entire infantry bunker.
The FMVs are less ridiculous, more grounded. The politics of the game, more familiar. The gameplay, not quite as good as RA2s, but still fantastic. The graphics: an incredible step up, and actually 3D. This is, however, where the story begins to turn.
Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007) – Is Command and Conquer 3 bad? No. Is it good? Well…
It’s very…brown. The 2006+ era of games is definitely when the brown shade was starting to creep in, only getting worse when Gears of War would release, and have a colour spectrum somewhere between gun metal grey, and sadness brown. Everything’s just a bit…off. Everything feels slightly derivative. We’re getting on in the years now, but the series hasn’t really changed in a significant way. Generals added powers, alongside lots of variety from the subfactions, and C&C3…didn’t do much more.
I confess, I didn’t play it a whole lot. Somewhat astonishing to me, as I remember playing RA2 and Tiberium Sun until their soundtracks were my life’s backing music — but I don’t really remember C&C3. There’s not a whole lot there to remember. Hey you don’t build individual infantry anymore, you make squads. Well, that’s…a change. At least the FMVs are still there. Anything else? Hm, OK. Hopefully this is just a blip.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 (2008) – How can I describe this game. You’re at a party. Your last drink went down pretty poorly, and you’re starting to feel the slide to the grimmer side of inebriation. However, you’re determined to have a good time. You second-wind slightly, you stand yourself up, and you try to relive the last hour of the party. You’re going from conversation to conversation, you’re doing the same routine as before, but this time it’s a bit worse. Nothing’s coming out right: your anecdotes are a little unfocused, your jokes are just a bit off, and you can tell that everyone’s getting tired of it. They were loving what you were before, and you’re trying ever-so-hard to be that again, but you just can’t quite do it. Worse still, everyone at the party is starting to dance — dancing is the new thing, and you want to get involved in it. You walk onto the dance floor, and you do a pretty good dance. People like it, they find it a refreshing addition to your routine. You decide to add even more dancing in as a result. The room begins to spin, and the only thing that stops you from throwing up on the dance floor is Tim Curry bursting into the room and yelling SPACE.
It feels a bit like Westwood heard everyone talking about how C&C3 was uninnovative and samey, and went “You think it’s the same, FINE! Every unit has two abilities now! Also, there’s co-op! Also, there’s a new Japanese faction and they’re WEIRD AS HELL!”. I definitely don’t have the same vibe of complete and utter apathy towards this, that I have towards C&C3. Again, there’s just something missing. The answer is charm. Red Alert 2‘s charm is in how truly, sincerely strange it is. It’s earnest, while also being totally ridiculous. You never get the sense that something is absurd for the sake of being absurd. An airstrike being called in on Alcatraz because that’s where Yuri has set up his mind-control machine? Played as though it’s an episode of The West Wing. Generals sits on the other end of the spectrum. The world and the story are grounded in reality, incredibly serious stuff, but the way it’s approached is inherently comedic. You’re not just a US Army General, you’re THE LASER GENERAL. You’re dealing with terrorists in the middle east, but they sound like this. In Red Alert 2, the world is ridiculous, but it’s played seriously. In Generals, the world is serious, but it’s played ridiculously.
The source of their charm there is pretty clear. Red Alert 3, however, is fully aware of what it’s trying to be. Even Tim Curry yelling SPACE is delivered with a hint of self-awareness: they’re wanting you to laugh. They know what they’ve made is absurd, and they want in on the joke — but they can’t be. Red Alert 3 is too clean, too sleek, too well produced. It’s trying too hard, and this weirdly takes the edge off. The inclusion of co-op was a good move, and definitely Westwood feeling the direction that the wind was going in. The only problem is, this would lead to the beginning of the end.
Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) – Oh no, oh no. You want multiplayer? You’ll get multiplayer. You’ll get it from every angle. Now the game is built around multiplayer, which is class-based for some reason, and has player-progression for unlocking units. According to the wikipedia article, this was never intended to be a mainline C&C game, but instead an “online game for the Asian pro-gaming market”. It feels that way. It looks ugly, it’s utterly charmless, and nearly everything that was enjoyable from the original games has been stripped out in favour of something that was meant to be e-sportsish.
I don’t want to dwell on all the reasons that C&C4 sucked, because I think you can go and read about that. Truth be told, I never bought it. I played in the multiplayer beta, and thought it was one of the worst games I’ve played. There was nothing left for me there, and the integration between the SP and the MP made it all the more clear what the focus was. So this is how it all died, not with a bang, but with an esports-powered fart. A series that was heralded as the RTS series, going from a household staple, to being a shadow of its former self. You’ll note that this is the last entry in the series…in 2010, eleven years ago.
That’s a quick jaunt through the C&C series, from birth to death. The interesting thing is, that it’s not just C&C which died, it was everything. So what went wrong? Well, I’ll get onto that, what I want you to remember is the year 2007. That’s the last year in the genre, the last time it was worth talking about. So what have we got up to that point? We’ve got something I think of as a ‘second renaissance’ for the RTS genre, from 2004-2007, a collection of screamers that would remind everyone that, no, the RTS genre still had plenty to give.
Dawn of War (2004) + expansions up to Dark Crusade in 2007.
Perimeter (2004) (A game that nobody remembers, but genuinely was unlike anything else you’ll ever play)
Company of Heroes (2006) + Opposing Fronts expansion
Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 1+2 (2004-2006)
DEFCON (2006) (controversial entry, but I’m putting it here)
While this might not seem like a long list, the fact that within a span of three years, we got some of the most fondly looked back on RTSs is incredible to me. Each one of these games did something new and refreshing, and are all worthy of your time if there’s something on there that you haven’t played already. So what came after? Well, several years of…fine games? There’s nothing in there that’s stand-out phenomenal, and plenty of utter disappointments. Dawn of War II ended up dividing the community between people that enjoyed the Warcraft III-esque focus on hero units and micromanagement, and people who didn’t. Supreme Commander 2 was garbage, and quickly forgotten. R.U.S.E came out, and was bad. We have a patch of the Wargame: [SUBTITLE] series being good, before the developers decided to make the same game several times (and are still making the same game). Planetary Annihilation came out, promising to be a return to form for the genre, but was a vapid, deceptive early-access disappointment. Company of Heroes 2 came out, and was…fine. Filled with unit customisation elements and silhouetting issues that made the game play worse than the original. It still has an active-ish MP scene. Men of War came out, and was good, but again, the developers decided to make the same game several times.
The refugees from Westwood studios in the form of Petroglyph Games made Grey Goo and Universe at War: Earth Assault (it came out in 2008 for EU, it counts!). Both of which were…mediocre. Stardock came out with Ashes of the Singularity, which played more like a tech demo and lacked any of the soul that Supreme Commander had, despite sitting very squarely in its shoes. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak came out as a prequel to the Homeworld series and was…fine. There’s plenty more here that I’m not commenting on, and not everything is bad/awful — but there’s nothing stand-out. I still play Supreme Commander sometimes, because there’s just nothing like it. I still play the original Dawn of War. Both of those games have sequels, though the less said about Dawn of War III, the better. If you ask people to name their favourite RTSs, they’re going to be naming something from 2007 or prior. Maybe they’ll say one of the Wargame series if they’re a military-nut, but that’s probably it. So, again, we come to the question of why? Why is the RTS genre so dead? Here’s three quick reasons.
It’s Harder to Monetize Efficiently
It’d be remiss to not mention this. When was the last AAA RTS? I’m not even sure what the answer to that question is, but the biggest publishers aren’t touching the genre, even when they’ve got a history for publishing in it. Electronic Arts hasn’t published an RTS since Command and Conquer 4, deciding not even to release Command and Conquer: Generals 2 after that seemed clear set to flop. Oh, scratch that, they did release that mobile game. Part of the answer here has to be monetization, or the lack of it. While it’s extremely trivial to introduce predatory monetization schemes into genres like shooters, where you can sell people a weapon skin for amounts of money previously reserved for actually buying games, it’s much harder to do this for the RTS genre. DLC normally takes the form of expansion packs or additional factions. Dawn of War II seemingly hit a stride with the Last Stand mode, where they sold additional heroes and released new ones in consort with expansion packs, but it clearly didn’t make enough money for them to continue doing it.
The cold truth is, the games industry is increasingly pushing towards extremely low investment, extremely high recurrent return games. When people will fork out £20 for a single gun skin in Valorant, why on earth would you spend the effort and time on an expansion to an RTS that might only sell for a few pounds more than that? Furthermore, unit readability is an extremely important aspect of competitive RTSs, so selling unit skins hasn’t taken on. Oh, unless you’re Blizzard, in which case you sell unit skins for upwards of forty pounds what the fuck. You’re reaching a smaller audience with RTSs, and you’re unable to monetize them as thoroughly as other genres. Why take the risk? The alternative is to take the Paradox Interactive approach, and release endless tides of DLC which encapsulate huge swarthes of the game, and render the base games essentially unplayable. This has made them extremely ‘popular”, but also has made them huge piles of money.
You Actually Need a Brain to Play Them
Let me smell my own farts here, please. The RTS genre is a pretty difficult one, with the most stand-out examples being generally of some complexity. You’re not going to get the immediate dopamine fix with next to no mental engagement that you get from say, Fortnite. A lot of the enjoyment from RTS games comes as a direct result from mentally engaging with the game and receiving a payoff from it. It’s that moment where you come out with the perfect unit composition, and smash apart your opponent. It’s when you built the right artillery in the right place at the right time. It’s in the act of balancing your resources effectively, ensuring that your base runs like a well-oiled machine. It’s using an ability at just the right moment, so that you win the fight and thus, the game. These are things that take time, and mental engagement. Generally speaking, RTSs that have attempted to remove the long time investment, and attempted to speed things up to get you into the action faster, have been far worse for it. This was explicitly one of the design goals for Command & Conquer 4. You don’t get the same dopamine rush from landing that sick headshot in tomatotown (I am literally aging to dust in typing this). You have to put in far more effort.
Obviously there are games in the wider strategy and management genre that have sold like gangbusters, despite being high complexity. Your Factorios, your Total Wars, your Paradox Interactive games. While they are typically of comparable or greater complexity, it’s the real time element that trips people up. People like being able to pause, take their time to sort stuff out, then resume the game to their liking. In Factorio’s case, there aren’t huge time demands on you, with the difficulty (in the aliens) emerging as a result of your own actions, and thus tied to your pace. RTSs generally demand your uninterrupted attention — less so in single player, where you can pause the game (but generally not issue any orders while this is the case), but absolutely so in multiplayer. If you’ve committed to playing Supreme Commander in multiplayer, you better be ready to have to mentally engage with the game for an hour or more. There’s no “ah I’ll quickly pause the game and throw out a grenade” in Company of Heroes MP. The pace of the game is set by the game, and you’re expected to keep up. Sure, you could play all of Hearts of Iron IV in real time, but that’s a limitation you’ve put on yourself, not one that the game demanded.
Everyone Keeps Trying to Make Fucking Starcraft
I can hear you goddamned thinking at the screen you know. Do you have to think so loud? Yes, yes, yes. I know, Starcraft. Starcraft. I’ve avoided saying it for this whole post, even at points that it would have made sense to mention it. Someone out there is going to be going “RTS isn’t dead, because Starcraft II is still a popular game!”. Well, I’m here to tell you that the health of Starcraft II has absolutely nothing to do with the health of the RTS genre in general — in fact, they might be inversely correlated, because the point where SC2 was coming down the pipeline at us, was roughly when the whole thing went to shit. “How can this be?” I hear you ask? It’s fairly simple. Starcraft is gigantic, absolutely monolithic and space-distorting. It’s most likely the best selling RTS of all time, and is probably the most well-known. Sure, Command & Conquer was the foundation of the genre, but Starcraft has carried the torch into the modern era. There’s still tournaments, there’s still videos being pumped out on Youtube every single day — and it’s not just SC2, but Brood War and the remasters. Even the most utterly delusional of RTS fans wouldn’t claim that Starcraft hasn’t been genre defining, but that’s not the point. The problem is, that Starcraft already exists. We’ve already got it, and the people that play it are absolutely happy to continue playing it for the forseeable future. They’re not interested in the RTS genre, they’re interested in Starcraft.
How do I know this? Take a look at the biggest SC Youtube channels. There’s normally a degree of crossover between game-centric channels — a lot of the channels that played PUBG went on to play Fortnite, and a lot of those channels went on to play COD: Warzone. The popularity of those games is largely in tack with the popularity of the battle royale genre. The same can be said for online card games like Hearthstone. These are games that not only became incredibly popular, but they created demand for the genres that they were in. There’s now dozens of online card games, not as popular as Hearthstone, but some have managed to carve out their own little niches. Same thing with Overwatch, demand for the game has created general demand, which led to the creation of competing games in that space. The healthiness of the game is correlated with the healthiness of the space. This is not the case for Starcraft. Go and look at the biggest SC channels, and tell me how many times you find a video of them playing another RTS. Hard mode, not Warcraft III. I found one, and that was They Are Billions, which has a lot in common with the tower defense genre, rather than the traditional RTS space. The moment that Starcraft II was most popular, in the early 2010s, was also the moment that the RTS genre started to spiral into a decline, and I don’t think that was a coincidence.
Here’s a list of game features:
Simple unit design, with complexity arising from abilities and compositions.
Simplified unit interactions, rock-paper-scissors balance.
Focus on unit responsivity and readability.
5-15 minute average game time.
Strong divergence between three factions.
Abstract map design and terrain features.
Multiplayer & Esports Focus.
If this sounds good to you, fantastic, have I got the game for you! It’s called Starcraft. It’s incredibly obvious how much of an impact the game has had, because the features above very quickly appeared in franchises that had absolutely nothing to do with them previously. Take Supreme Commander, vast in scale, slow and glorious like a majestic ship. Then look at Supreme Commander 2. Oh, all the majesty and scale has been thrown out, oh the match time has been pulled back, oh there’s far fewer units now, and their interactions are much simpler. Oh, we’re back to three factions from four (in Forged Alliance). Oh it’s much more consumable for an online environment. Oh, it’s crap and nowhere near as good as the original? Pity that. What about Dawn of War? Ah yes, a lovely game. Lots of layers to unit interactions, with morale being a stat almost as important as health, and delicious sync kill animations to make the combat seem epic and grandiose. Sure, the combat might get a bit messy, but that’s the point: it’s a glorious mess. Plenty of factions too, with the original game having one hundred billion from expansions, and Dawn of War II having six (Space Marines, Orks, Eldar, Tyranids, Chaos, Imperial Guard). DoWII might be quite a bit different, but at least they took the cover mechanics from Company of Heroes, along with the importance of emplacements, while maintaining the melee engagement system.
Then comes Dawn of War III. Oh what’s that? That cover system has been thrown out the window, in favour of a far more simplified and abstract moba-like system? Oh the complex unit interactions are all gone, and now Space Marines will sit and shoot at point blank like Starcraft marines? Oh there’s only three factions now, despite the previous games having over twice that number? Oh, there’s a focus on multiplayer, with an absolutely bizarre moba-like mode in place of the traditional RTS staples? Oh, all of the colours are really abstract and basic now?
Oh what’s that? The game has been absolutely panned by the community, because it pleased neither the fans of the original, nor the fans of the more RPG-focused Dawn of War II? Great, glad that they decided to make a game for an audience that never wanted Dawn of War, instead of making a game for the audience they actually had.
I could go on. Command and Conquer 4 was terrible for exactly the same reasons above. They threw out what was the original soul of the game, chasing an audience that never had any interest in the first place. Command and Conquer: Generals 2 never even made it out of beta, though the reasons behind that seem more corporate than feedback. Not that the feedback was any good, with the game being an extremely familiar, weightless, experience. With C&C, it’s a bit more understandable because the series was starting to show its cracks before SC2 exploded onto the scene, but with Supreme Commander and Dawn of War, it’s pretty unforgivable. Nobody who played those games wanted them to do what they did. Company of Heroes 2 is a more complicated case, as some people do enjoy it, but I’ve never come across someone willing to argue that it’s better than the original. It’s such a bizarre place to be, as a genre, where the sequels are consistently worse than games made sometimes five, to ten years before. These were games that used to have a vision, they used to have something distinct to them — but they’ve homogenised. I remember being incredibly excited for the idea of Halo Wars. An RTS set in the Halo universe? Hot damn! Oh, it’s smooth, it’s weightless, and it’s been massively simplified for console. Wait, they’re making a sequel which is coming out on PC! Is this th- nope, still simplified, still streamlined, still incredibly similar to every other RTS made in the post-SC2 era.
Is it completely hopeless? Not quite. There’s a few rays of sunshine here and there. Not fantastic games, mind, but it feels like there’s an effort being made. Microsoft is coming out with Age of Empires IV, though from the gameplay it looks like they’re playing it incredibly safe. There’s stuff like Northgard, which is a genuinely unique viking-esque RTS, that I’ve put a few hours into. There’s Iron Harvest, which looks to be incredibly similar to Company of Heroes, but didn’t land terribly well on account of the price, and lack of depth. Spellforce III was absolutely not my cup of tea, but it looks to have gained some interest in the last 3-4 years. There’s just nothing stand-out, nothing that I can unequivocally recommend. Supreme Commander and Dawn of War weren’t after-the-fact hits, that we look back on fondly. When they came out, we knew they were exceptional. The reason I’m still going back to them years after the fact isn’t out of some sense of nostalgia, it’s because they are genuinely timeless games that are without peer. There’s just nothing like them, at least not in the officially-published/released space — you’ll find mods and fanmade things here and there. (See Beyond All Reason for a Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander esque free game). Why? With all the tech advancement of the last ten years, why aren’t we seeing some really earthshattering RTS games making full use of current hardware? Why do RTS games seem to become more innovative the further back you go, rather than forwards?
I’ll leave you with this. You might not believe me when I say the RTS genre is dead, and you might have thought this article seemed fairly unfocused. That’s fine, but here’s my last piece of evidence. If you go to PCGamesN, and look at their ‘top RTS games of 2021 list‘, you’ll see this.
Now let me put the release dates next to those games.
When your ‘top RTS games of 2021’ list contains exactly zero entries that were released in 2021, 2020, and has one original game from 2019 (one that I’ve not played, and sits at double-digit playcount on steamcharts for its entire existence). When it contains Europa Universalis IV, which is definitely not a real time strategy game in the way that the term is used for the rest. When the other entry from 2019 is a remaster from a game made over two decades ago, and everything else is 5+ years old…what do you want me to say here? Does this look like a healthy genre to you?
Imagine I’m a friend of yours. I tell you about this all-you-can-eat restaurant that’s about to open up down the road, and how fantastic it’s going to be. I show you pictures of the venue, I give you a menu that lists a huge variety of things that you’ll be able to get there. Maybe we even visit the location one day, and I take you on a guided tour of the premises. You’re excited, after all, your favourite dishes are on that menu and I’m telling you all the right things about this restaurant — it’s promising to be something that you’ve never tried before, and I’m giving you everything in the world to believe that. After a time, the day of the grand opening arrives, and we’re one of the first customers through the door. We pay the entry fee, and we get access to the buffet. You discover that a huge number of things on the menu that I showed you aren’t available, and the things that are there are nowhere near as good as they were described. The venue is fine, but it’s noticeably different from the guided tour I gave you. How would you feel? You’d probably be a bit upset, maybe even angry — but you’d probably be less so if I wasn’t aware this was coming down the pipe. Now imagine that I owned this restaurant. I was involved from the very beginning, and I was completely aware of its shortcomings as it was approaching opening day. How would you feel then?
Now imagine it’s a year or two later, and I coax you back into the restaurant. This time, it looks a lot closer to the tour I gave you. A lot of the things that I said would be on the menu, are actually there. The food tastes good, and people are starting to talk about it in a positive light. How would you feel? Would you feel happy that the picture I gave you years ago has started to become a reality? Would you be happy that the dishes you wanted are there, and they taste pretty good? Very possibly. However, for me, this is not an interesting question. The interesting question is should you be happy? If I came to you with another restaurant pitch, should you trust me again? Now imagine I wasn’t your friend, I was just some marketing guy from the restaurant. Is that better, or worse? Is it your fault for believing what I told you? Is it an honest mistake by me, the marketing person? The answer to all of these questions, in my opinion, is an emphaticno. The problem with No Man’s Sky is not so much that the game did not exist in the form it was advertised as: the games industry is absolutely filled with games that fit this description. The problem is more what it represents.
Cards on the table, I have barely played NMS. I dipped my toe in quite a while after release, and didn’t particularly enjoy what I played. That’s fine, not every game is for every person. I do not fault the game for being an experience that is not for me, as it’s my understanding that many people enjoy the game as it currently exists. My problem is with the spreadsheet above. No Man’s Sky is now receiving praise for the large amount of after-release support that the developers have given it. There are many articles singing the praises of Hello Games, and heralding NMS as “…one of the all-time biggest turnarounds in industry history“. There are innumerable Youtube videos describing how NMS is the game to play in 2021, and how you simply must try it. After all, look at how far it’s come! Comparisons are being made to Final Fantasy XXIV, an MMO that released in a similarly poor state, but has grown to being one of the most popular MMORPGS currently running. Should Hello Games not be lauded with praise, for being silent workhorses to bring the game into such a fantastic state?
I recall an argument I had with my Philosophy teacher in secondary school. He was a CoE Christian (as far as I know), and doubled as a Religious Education teacher when he wasn’t teaching Philosophy to the more senior years at the school. The lesson was about free will, and the idea of the world requiring it to have ‘meaningful good’. The example he presented to us, was a murderer who came to be redeemed through righteous action, and went on to live a good life. The question he asked was: is it not better for someone to arrive at the good through their own effort and choice, rather than to have the good simply foisted upon them. The notion being that, the murderer was more fitting of the word ‘good’, because they had strived to achieve it, rather than simply being unable to do otherwise (lacking in free will). My counterpoint/return question was simple. “Better for who? Was it better for the people that were murdered?” Everyone clapped. In all seriousness, I can’t remember his response to that, I’m not sure he even gave one.
The world loves a redemption arc. There’s something inherently compelling about this type of story, and it appears throughout fiction and within real world narratives. So let’s reframe the murderer analogy above to fit NMS (not to imply that what Hello Games did was akin to murder, despite claims to the contrary in the internet response they got initially). Was it better that No Man’s Sky released in an absolutely shoddy state and then slowly crawled its way to being the picture that was sold originally, versus simply releasing in that state to begin with? The obvious answer is no, but I think the objection will be “well, the game couldn’t release in the state it exists in now, because they didn’t have the two years they’ve had to make it that way”. While this is true, the point that I’m trying to make is that there was no inherent value to this “redemption arc”. If you had to choose between releasing NMS as it existed, versus releasing it as it exists now, you’d choose the latter every time. The world was not better for them having released a shittier product, and then slowly making it better over time. If you were one of the people that bought the game for full price on release, your world will have been several pounds worse for it. Let’s bring out that spreadsheet again.
The problem with this spreadsheet, and how it’s being used, is that it’s being presented as a demonstration of how far the game has come. Look at all the green, look at the features at the bottom which they released from the goodness of their hearts! It’s definitely useful in that regard, but the bigger question for me is, why is there any red at all? This isn’t a changelog, where the state of the game is being compared neutrally between launch and now. This is a list of lies. This is a menu of dishes that were never in the buffet. The red column is describing a game that did not exist, but was sold as though it did. This is a statement of charges, a list of damages. One should look at this spreadsheet and ingest the magnitude of the lie that was told about the game. Here’s my personal feeling on this: You don’t get credit for lying about something, and then making it true after the fact. While you’re certainly in a better position than someone who lied and then made no attempt to reconcile that, you’re absolutely not in the same position as someone who never lied to begin with. Not even close. Perhaps this spreadsheet is to be seen as a statement on the wider games industry — we’re so used to being sold a bill of goods that doesn’t exist, that companies are now worthy of praise for even attempting to make good on that original lie. I don’t want to live in that world. I don’t want to live in a world where liars are given more credit than those who never lied to begin with.
So we come to what I consider to be, ‘the biggest problem’. There’s a narrative being built here — a narrative of “well, this game released in a terrible state, but maybe they’ll pull a No Man’s Sky on it”. I’m hearing it with regard to Cyberpunk 2077, a game that similarly was sold on a bill of goods that was inaccurate (in some respects better, in some respects worse, see: previous gen console performance). I’ve heard it before with other live service games, where there’s this glimmer of hope that the developers will swoop down and deliver the game as it was promised. This is not a sane world to live in. Customers are no longer buying a game, they’re being asked to buy the potential of a game. “Ah, sure, it’s bad now, but give it a few months and maybe it’ll be what they said it would be.” Note that this is not the same as buying a game due to a release roadmap, not that roadmaps have held much water in the past: this is people buying games on the off-chance that they’ll start to become what they were originally sold as. This simply isn’t acceptable. These companies should be constantly raked across the coals for their deception. Every article about No Man’s Sky should be caveated with “bearing in mind, these new features are what they lied about the game having at launch”. I know there’ll be a defense here of “well, that’s marketing, deal with it”. Fuck that. If marketing is the act of lying about a product, then burn down that whole field. If that’s what it is, then let’s stop using the word ‘Marketer’, and start calling them ‘Professional Liars’.
There were two lessons that could have been learned from No Man’s Sky. The first one, was that with a bit more time and development effort, you can make a really good game. As I said at the very start, by all appearances it does seem like NMS has become something that people genuinely enjoy playing. This is not an original sentiment, it’s a tried and tested principle that Shigeru Miyamoto is most famously quoted for:
“A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad,”
There are so many games that fall into this category. Obviously there are some that are beyond saving, Valve’s Artifact would fall into this bucket for me, as a game that was never going to work because the foundation was so poor. Time was not a problem there, but it’s a problem for a lot of games. There was a world in which No Man’s Sky was delayed, where a spokesperson came forwards and ate a mile of humble pie. The game would be delayed because it wasn’t the experience they sold, and they wanted to make good on that promise. The cost of development would need to be absorbed somewhere, but the game would release, closer to the version we have now — maybe people would complain about the things which were still missing, but it’d be a lot more like what they were sold. Then there’s the second lesson. The second lesson is that you can lie to customers about the state of a product and you’ll get a pass to eventually make good on your original promises. That what you sell does not have to resemble what you made, because eventually that may start to be the case. That even though you sold something that fundamentally did not exist, you’ll get a load of positive press and free advertising when you eventually drag it closer to that line. That customers have the memory of goldfish, and they’ll forget all the pre-release content you put out, artfully crafted with content that just wasn’t in the game.
I think you can guess what lesson the games industry learned.
If there’s one thing that I can proudly say I’ve done in my ~10 years of near constant DMing, it’s horribly fail in almost every conceivable way. I’ve run terrible, unsatisfying sessions. I’ve created utterly uninspired settings, devoid of any character or pull. I’ve written massive character backstories for NPCs that players talk to for three minutes, then forget immediately. I’ve written less than a sentence of notes for locations that then became frequent stomping grounds. I’ve written mysteries with massive holes that needed patching on-the-fly, monsters where I’ve missed key statistics, and homebrew magic so ridiculous that it wasn’t worth the bytes it was stored in. I like to think, however, that through this process of constant failure, I’ve slowly honed my DM skills to the point that I avoid a lot of the common pitfalls — instead, plummeting into new and hitherto unexplored ones. This post, I’m going to talk about what obscure problems I’ve run into, and how to avoid them.
Perfect Failure, Perfect Success
There is a very common meme in the RPG space, the meme of “wacky anecdotes from when people roll 20 or 1”. The story of the dwarf who rolls a natural 20 on a pit and convinces it to close up, that moment when your fighter rolls a natural one and buries his broadsword in an adjacent friendly wizard. These are funny anecdotes, but they’re also a terrible way to play a game. Unless the system you’re playing specifies extreme events from critical successes/failures, you probably shouldn’t add them. The reason for this is fairly simple — sure, it was highly entertaining when someone rolled a natural 20 on their acrobatics check, and gained the power of flight as a result, but what do you do when it happens again ten minutes later? The same again? A natural 20 occurs 5% of the time, which is pretty damned common in a dice-heavy game like D&D, Pathfinder, etc. If you’re having absolutely catastrophic things happen as a result of natural ones, then you need to be ready for this to occur several times a session.
Most systems dial back on the importance of rolling critical results. In contrast with common house rules, natural 20s on skill checks in D&D5e do not automatically succeed. If your bard is comically weak, then it doesn’t matter what they roll, they cannot lift an object that has a DC greater than 20 + their skill mod. In Pathfinder 2e, if you roll a natural 20 but your result is 10 below the DC, you’re still going to fail1. This might feel quite cruel, because rolling a maximum result on a dice is typically a momentous event, but it’s necessary to maintain the structure of the game. If a natural 20 guaranteed success on skill checks, then the dumbest moron in the land would have a 5% chance of being as knowledgeable than the smartest being on the planet. While this might be funny, and the vibe that you want for your game, you shouldn’t do it without heavy consideration. Games that have extensive house-ruled mechanics for criticals tend to degenerate into absolute nonsense — even when using the ‘official’ critical hit optional rules like the decks for Pathfinder 2e.
Even when it comes to regular failure, you should be careful to never have the outcome be immediately extreme (unless the system is balanced around this notion). If a failure on a Diplomacy roll means that the NPC will never speak to the player again, you’re going to be running out of NPCs by the end of the second session. I think the Climb rules in Pathfinder 2e illustrate this point very well.
Wait a second, where’s the line for when you fail? There isn’t one, because failure in this instance simply means that the action is wasted. The character attempts to move across the incline, loses their footing for a moment, and stops moving. Only when you critically fail, do you actually begin to fall, and even then, Pathfinder 2e has additional rules to alleviate that. This doesn’t mean there’s no consequence for failing — the character wastes an action doing nothing in a game where action economy is extremely important.
For me, I’d summarise this whole point as being “don’t exaggerate success and failure from the result of a single dice roll”. Sure, if a character rolls consecutive critical failures when they’re attempting to move across a sheer drop, you can describe them slowly and painfully plummeting to their death. That’s the mechanical punishment for being incredibly unlucky. Singular results, however, shouldn’t mean a great deal in the grand scheme of things. A failure to Persuade an NPC means a joke that doesn’t land, or an argument they don’t fully agree with. A critical failure means a joke that offends them, or a nonsensical anecdote causing discomfort and difficulty with the conversation moving forwards: it doesn’t mean they immediately draw a crossbow and attempt to murder you in the street. Similarly, a critical success doesn’t mean they immediately abandon their life, swear themselves to your cause, and ask for your hand in marriage. Pathfinder 2e has additional caveats in conversation with the Request action: “Some requests are unsavory or impossible, and even a helpful NPC would never agree to them.“
If you want a world where it’s possible to convince the queen to give the players all of her worldly possessions after one minute of conversation, that’s fine. With a campaign where absolute nonsense has a 5% chance of occurring every dice roll, just be ready for that game to have absolutely no structure after even a handful of sessions.
Old Man Henderson
In a lot of RPGs, when it comes to character creation there is an understood ‘tiering’ of skills and attributes. Usually, every system has some sort of ‘God Stat’ — a statistic that either demands having some points in for a functional character, or one that can have points piled into for good effect. When talking about the canonical fantasy attributes (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA), the go-to example tends to be dexterity/agility, which has enjoyed a comfortable spot in almost every fantasy RPG. With skills, there’s a bit more variance, even within the traditional dungeoneering RPGs. I’d categorise skills roughly into the following categories of ‘god stats’.
Ability to perceive (perception, spot hidden, listen)
Ability to sneak (stealth, disguise, hide)
Ability to move objects and yourself (athletics, acrobatics, dodge)
Ability to heal (medicine, first aid, surgery)
Ability to persuade (diplomacy, persuade, charm)
Ability to deceive (deception, lie, fast talk)
Ability to discern (insight, psychology, sense motive)
Rarely applies, see below.
Now, you might completely disagree with my selection here. “Where are survival skills!” I hear you cry. “What about library use!” Yes, yes. I’ve missed out quite a few, more system specific skills/attributes to allow for it to be a more general list, but bear with me here. I think I would quite comfortably say that you need to have a party with points in these things for almost any campaign. If you try to play a D&D5e campaign with a party lacking a good Perception score, you’re largely going to have a bad time. If you try to play a Pathfinder 2e campaign with a party lacking a good medicine score, you’re largely going to have a bad time2. If you try to play a Call of Cthulhu campaign with a party lacking a good Persuade/Charm/Fast Talk score, you’re largely going to have a bad time. Obviously, all of these things have conceivable exceptions, but I think these are reasonable assumptions in the main.
So the question is: why are these skills so valuable, or even required? My answer to this would be: because these skills are the ones that emerge ‘thoughtlessly’ in the course of play. If you have a world with societies and NPCs of note, then the character’s ability to interact with those NPCs is going to arise. If you have a world with dungeons (in the broadest sense of the word), then the character’s ability to scrutinise, navigate and manipulate that dungeon is going to arise. With ‘intellectual’ skills, RPGs tend to rely entirely on the player using their wits to solve puzzles or mysteries. Mostly the closest you’ll get to a ‘solve the thing’ skill is something like the investigation skill in D&D5e, or the Idea Roll in Call of Cthulhu 7e. As such, the ‘intellectual’ category lacks the god skills that the other categories have.
Now you’re wondering, “where’s the common DM mistake?”. The existence of ‘god-skills’ implies the existence of…normal skills. Skills that aren’t guaranteed to be useful for a campaign, things like Performance, Religion, or History. These are skills that are mostly taken for flavour purposes, rather than them serving a definite mechanical purpose. If you’re playing a cleric, you’re going to have a (relatively) high Religion skill. The common DM mistake is to think that it’s solely the player’s responsibility to introduce ways for these obscure skills to come up in play. It is not. It is the DM’s as well. The DM should be using the character sheets as inspiration for content — almost like a food menu at a restaurant. If a player has an extremely high Lore (Circus) score (yes, that is a suggested lore in PF2e), it’s utterly absurd to believe that the player can reasonably bring that about by themselves. Instead, as the DM, you should be looking for an opportunity to introduce that check. Maybe the party is assaulted by an aggressor, who moves in a way distinctive to a travelling show? With Lore (Alcohol), perhaps the party stumbles across a disguised noble, who’s drinking a beverage far too rich for their supposed station. If a player’s investigator has a hefty score in Accounting, put them in a situation where reading important financial documents gives them a minor clue for moving forwards.
This does not mean you need to have progression locked behind an iron gate marked “Knowledge of 15th Century Architecture”. It means that you should read your player’s character sheets, and identify opportunities to introduce content that you would not otherwise have thought of. Perception will come up on its own, social skills will come up on their own, but you need to work for the rest. I guarantee however, that when you introduce the obscure lore check that a player put points into, they will love you for it. It’ll be even funnier when they fail that check. In addition, it leads to a considerably richer experience when the players are doing something other than rolling the same five extremely frequent checks, and get to think about the (usually) more minor parts of their character.
Hootsby, the Level 17 Pigeon
Videogame RPGs like World of Warcraft or Divinity: Original Sin 2 have set a fairly ugly precedent when it comes to NPC/creature design in a levelled environment. I’ll give you a specific example of this problem: both games have settlements/civilisation that they expect the player to frequently visit for things like services, repairs, buying magic items, etc. However, in DOS2’s case, they don’t want you to be able to just murder the whole town and steal all the items, otherwise it’d lead to a horrible imbalance in favour of the players. In WoW’s case, they don’t want players from opposing factions to be able to easily rampage through the town, murdering all the NPCs and preventing other players from interacting with them. So there’s two immediate approaches here: you could flat-out prevent players from interacting with NPCs in that way, removing their agency and preventing them from imbalancing the game3. The second option, is that you make the town guard or merchant NPCs high enough level/sufficiently powerful that the players are in serious danger if they attempt to attack them. In DOS2’s case, this means that most of the merchants are weirdly capable in things like magic and swordsmanship, despite seemingly spending their lives yelling in a village square. In WoW’s case, this means that all of the town guard sit at the current max level of the players, and will usually cream the shit out of any individual starting trouble.
For a videogame, which lacks the moderating influence of a player – DM relationship, and with a computationally limited ability to adjust the world, these decisions make mechanical sense. The challenge of combat in DOS2 would be somewhat trivialised if you were able to gear yourself with the best available gear by easily slaughtering merchants at the very start4. The ‘story’ of WoW would be heavily disrupted if you could plunge a sword into the king’s head at any moment. The decisions, do not, however, make even a lick of narrative sense. In WoW’s case, a player character sat at the max level has overcome colossal challenges. They’ve fought and won against beasts from other dimensions, titans built as guardians of the world, outer gods who have come to consume the whole planet. Wielding armour and artifacts embued with holy power and arcane magics, they find themselves equally matched by a member of the town guard, wielding a mass-manufactured sword and uniform. It’s nonsense, clear baloney, but it’s a fact that the game needs you to accept (or at least, not think about) to not cause the wheels to fall off the rollercoaster.
In levelled, fantasy roleplaying games like D&D5e and Pathfinder 2e, levels do not just reflect a power change. Levels reflect a context change. There is a frequently quoted set of contexts with associated level bounds within these systems:
1 – 5
Local problems, villages, towns.
6 – 10
National problems, cities, countries.
11 – 15
Planetary problems, continents, hemispheres
16 – 20
Planar problems, material plane, universes
Not pictured, “level 0 problems”: big stinky rats.
The idea is, as the players increase in level, the context of the campaign shifts to accomodate their new abilities. Importantly, this is nothing to do with mechanical balance. This is purely to do with the narrative implications. Shifting the context at level sixteen says to the players that the mundane world can no longer offer a problem they can’t easily overcome. Their accomplishments have grown them to the point that they need to engage with transcendetal beings, or other dimensions, to be given any sort of challenge. By simply adjusting the levels and stats of otherwise mundane NPCs, you rob your players the opportunity to look back and see how far they’ve come. If the difference between a level 1 bandit, and a level 17 bandit in your world purely amounts to greater damage numbers and stats on a page, then something has gone wrong and an opportunity has been lost.
To codify this into a mistake then, the problem is merely upscaling the challenges that were faced in previous levels, instead of introducing new challenges that better fit the power the players now wield. This is something I have stumbled across in some of the PF2e prewritten content. I won’t have any spoilers, but the players go to a city that has a level 17city guard in garrison. As far as I can see, they’re not blessed by the gods, they’re not forged out of clay and given sentience through magic — they’re just normal human humanoids.
Now admittedly, the city isn’t an entirely mundane one, but my point still stands that there hasn’t been an established narrative reason for the guard to be walking gods. If you need your players to visit a city where you don’t want them to immediately tear up the place with their immense power, you probably want to set it somewhere that isn’t extremely mundane. Put the city in a pocket dimension, with divine otherworldly guards — not just ‘Todd the Guardsman’ who, for some reason, is capable of cleaving a hill giant in half. Ask yourself, if your town guard are so powerful, why aren’t they the ones solving the problems that the adventurers are? There could be a myriad of reasons why this is the case, political, religious, not just a power disparity. There just has to be a reason, otherwise you end up with WoW-world.
1 Your roll fails to hit the DC, which means it’s a failure. It’s 10 below the DC, which means it becomes a critical failure . The natural 20 only adds one level of success, which returns the result to being merely a failure, but a failure nonetheless.
2 I’m increasingly convinced that the whole system is balanced on someone having the ability to effectively Treat Wounds.
3 The Elder Scrolls games are a mix of these approaches. Sure, you can murder a shopkeeper in Skyrim, but they won’t have the purchasable catalogue of their store on the body — making the murder relatively pointless. With some NPCs, you’re prevented from killing them at all, simply rendering them unconscious despite the fact you’re burying a battleaxe into their skull.
4 Worth mentioning that DOS2 does indeed give you the ability to outright butcher NPCs. If you go back to a town having gotten several levels over it, you’re able to absolutely blow it to smithereens. Though at that point, the gear they drop is likely to be useless. I wanted to have DOS2 as an example of a non-MMO RPG, but in a lot of respects, it bucks the normal trend here.
There are two wolves. One loves to start new things, buy new games, start new RPG campaigns, take on new hobbies and do anything other than what I was doing last week. The second wolf is an incredibly impressionable one, which loves doing whatever I was just exposed to. If I’ve been watching/listening to something that’s Call of Cthulhu-esque, I’ll immediately start writing a Call of Cthulhu campaign. If I start reading a fantasy novel, I’ll start writing a fantasy novel. If I see some good art, I’ll start thinking about drawing, maybe finishing that art course that I started last year. If I see someone playing a game, I’ll probably start playing that game too, unless there’s something about it which really puts me off. These two wolves combine their energies, and make me someone who loves to start new shit, and that new shit tends to be based on whatever I was last exposed to. This is a problem.
It’s a problem because I see the creation of multi-part works, like books with future sequels, or RPG campaigns, as a promise to the people that experience them. The promise is, generally, ‘this will go somewhere, and will be concluded’. This is something that I’ve complained about when it comes to Game of Thrones (the books), and more recently The Kingkiller Chronicle – series where the author has yet to finish them, and has left the readers waiting for several years. I see it as cruel: the most dedicated readers of the work are the ones who suffer the longest and most; left waiting for a conclusion that may or may not come. There’s an element of bad craft as well. If your first few books came out with a good regularity, but your final one takes you over a decade to write, it suggests that you didn’t plan out the series and have been stuck trying to tie up ends. I think there’s a general intuition that starting things is pretty easy, but ending them satisfactorily is difficult. There are frankly enumerable TV shows that we can point to as a perfect example of this imbalance, especially in the ‘mystery box’ genre, which seems to be vogue right now.
If I told you that I never intended to finish the book that I started posting here, you’d probably think I was an asshole. You’d wonder why I didn’t warn you that it was never going to have a conclusion, and you probably wouldn’t have read it. You might even feel deceived — the feeling that people have when they buy an early-access game that never sees a proper release. I know there’s a lot of emotion around this subject, and folk tend to take the side of creators unless they’ve done something really heinous, but I think it has to be a two way street. Consuming media is not an effortless activity by an audience: sure there’s definitely forms of media that are easier to experience (TV, mobile games, etc), but everything demands some level of engagement from the person experiencing it. If you’ve read all the Game of Thrones novels, and the final one never sees the light of day, then it feels like your effort (as the audience) has not been respected. Money definitely complicates this picture as well. Some scrambled thoughts here, but I guess I’m trying to give you a picture of the internal creative trampoline I live on.
Here’s a list of stuff that I’m currently have mid-flight:
Writing a fantasy novel, chapter by chapter, on this blog.
The Pathfinder 2e system review post, the last part of which sits in drafts.
Creating a PF2e prewritten campaign for levels 1-5.
A LANCER campaign that I was meant to run for a second time, but haven’t gotten round to.
A D&D podcast idea that came about pre-pandemic, I made some moves towards starting, before it all sort of fell through the floor.
Photography bits and pieces, RPG videos using the camera that I explicitly bought for this purpose.
Miniature painting a load of minis that are due to arrive very soon.
Finishing a udacity character drawing art course.
This list goes on. It sort of sits in a priority order, and I was considering making this an actual page on the blog. “Creative projects that have yet to be finished”, but that felt like normalising the act of never finishing anything. I feared that it’d become something of a ‘Google Graveyard’. I wonder though, is this a problem? Is this the state that I just need to exist in? If I set up enough projects, when I’m inevitably influenced into working on something due to some stimuli, then I can just pick up where I left off? I’ve started reading The Wise Man’s Fear and I can already feel myself being compelled to continue writing the book on this blog. I’ve wondered if there’s an element of arrogance here as well: seeing a piece of media and then thinking I can do better. I’m not sure that I think it’s true, or helpful to think about things that way, but it’s definitely something I’ve considered.
In terms of RPG things, the most successful stuff that I’ve done tends to be in the 3-4 session length. After that, I know that my interest starts to fade, and I start to look for novelty in other things. I think what I need to do, is find a way to satiate that desire for novelty within those projects. If I’m getting tired of the direction a long-running RPG campaign is going in, then I need to find a way of spicing it up for myself. Creating fresh, exciting dungeons. New regions, new maps (I always love making maps, that seems to be the one constant throughout my trampolining) or new NPCs. The same goes for the book, if I feel myself getting bored, maybe I need to write a chapter that occurs in the future but don’t publish it yet.
Anyway, here was some scrambled thoughts, and a semi-explanation for why I’ve stopped posting so frequently on this blog. Partially it’s been because I’ve been thinking about and writing the PF2e prewritten, so I might make a few posts on that just to have something going up every so often.
ON THE SURFACE, THE day of the mustering was the same as any that had come before it. Dawn broke, and the roads of the village slowly grew in activity. Some emerged from their houses fully-dressed, but with bags under their eyes. Others crept out in smallclothes, to check whether the small-kingsmen had arrived; slinking back inside with relief shortly afterwards when they saw they hadn’t. I had been sat on a step in the square since the small hours, mulling over what Madam Varangia said to me, when Renee emerged from her house on the corner, patting down her sawbones apron as she looked up and down the road. Her eyes found me, and she swiftly hurried along the flagstones towards the little nook where I sat. “You know if Bergholf sees you lounging around on his steps, he’s going to give you another telling off?” I picked myself up and stretched, yawning as I did. “Actually, that was when you were wearing britches. This time he might just let it slide out of sheer discomfort.” I looked down: sure enough I was still in my smallclothes and long tunic, which I immediately pulled down out of self-consciousness.
“Well, I thought I’d try embarrassing the small-kingsmen until they left me behind out of shame. Think it’ll work?” She laughed, far harder than the joke warranted. “No need to lose your dignity, we could fix you something at my house. Take off a leg and tell them you lost it in a horrific tavern scrap last night. We could take out an eye and tell them you took up knife juggling to pass the time.” I belly-laughed and waved a hand, but she continued. “We could tell them you caught Fisherman’s Madness, but you’re in the early stages, before you start sweating saltwater. We could tell them you passed it onto Aldin and Illia too, and that they can’t take you because otherwise they’ll get it — that they have to let you stay because it isn’t safe!” I had stopped laughing, noticing now that her eyes were rubbed raw and bloodshot. She was beginning to tremble, no longer forming words with her mouth but sorrowful noises between shallow breaths. The tension in her shoulders began to fade away, as tears fell down her cheeks in great floods, and her head angled down to face the ground.
“It’s just so awful that you three are being sent away, while I get to stay. I feel so guilty — I’ve not been able to sleep since those people came.” I felt a twinge from deep down at ‘those people’, but quashed it. I took her hands in mine as she gently sobbed. “Renee, the village needs you. Your mother needs you. There’s going to be old folk doing work meant for young people. What these hands know how to do has never been more important.” She straightened up, looking up at me with glimmering eyes behind loose strands of mousy brown hair. “Illia, Aldin and I will be back before you even know it. Illia will have new stories and new worlds. We’ll all walk through the paths together, watching the woods grow and change with the seasons. I’ll even play a snow dancer in the Staehndag next year, if they let me. It-It’ll all be just like before, but better, and this time it won’t end.” I could see her beginning to laugh, and we moved apart as she wiped tears away. “I will hold you to all of that, Raemir of Sael. Do you hear me? Every word.”
I walked back to the forge briskly, keeping from the busiest parts of the village as I did. The roads were alive now, with folks walking and talking like it was any other day. I sighed with relief, as I pushed at the front door of my home and it yielded to me. Hearing some sounds of activity from the smithery, I covertly ascended the stairs and slunk into the bedroom. As I entered, however, I saw a large satchel sat square in the middle of my bed. I hesitated for a moment, unsure if someone was about to make their presence known, but I made my way over to it when no one was forthcoming. The dark leather gave off the fresh scent of tanning salts, and it felt durable to the touch. A couple of large steel buckles held two belts, which wrapped around the whole bag, securing a thick flap against the top opening. I released the buckles, pulling the flap back to reveal the well-packed contents. Inside were at least three tunics, one set of britches, a leather belt, a needle and thread, and several items that I didn’t recognise. There were two sticks of thin wood that seemed tacky to the touch, and weightier than they had right to be. I twiddled them between my fingers, before placing them to the side and pulling out the second thing that eluded my understanding.
It was a disc of polished metal, most likely silver, that was faced with glass. Enclosed within the glass was a piece of faded vellum, pinned with the thinnest piece of metal I’ve ever seen, which seemed to lurch and shift as I moved it around. I inspected it closer, looking for hidden strings to explain the motion, and saw the tiniest engraving on one end of the metal. I nearly dropped it in surprise when my mother’s voice sounded from the doorway. “It’s called a compass.” She walked over, took it from my hand and held it out in front of us. The needle danced again, then finally settled. “If you hold it out like this, it tells you which way north is.” She moved it around in demonstration, and sure enough, the metal maintained its orientation. I felt my jaw slacken. “You enchanted it? It’s magic?” She chuckled and shook her head. “I bought it. There’s lodestone in there, a mineral you’ve not ever worked with. Folk say that all the lodestone in the world came from the far north, and it yearns to make its way back there.”
She put it back in my hand gently. “You keep that to yourself now, don’t let anyone else see it. The folk that don’t know how it works will think you’re an Ardent. The folk that do…they’ll only see the sovereign they’d get for selling it. Best not to find out which one they are.” Her hands went over to the wooden sticks, picking up one and bringing it to my face. “This is a portable fire, useful in a pinch when you can’t find flint or don’t have the time. Strike it on something rough,” she mimed scratching the end across the wood of the bed “and it’ll instantly catch and give you a flame that’ll last a minute in the dry, and a few breaths in the wet.” She went back into the bag and pulled out a small stone cylinder, attached to a hemp cord, which was threaded through a smooth hole in the top. She put the cord over my head, and let the token fall against my chest. “A piece of jewelry that has sat in my family for generations. It’s called Tchanchestia.” She seamlessly transitioned into a completely foreign intonation, then back again but with a new, severe tone of voice. “My mother told me that if I found myself stood in the shadow of someone speaking in many tongues, I was to snap it between my finger and thumb.”
She sat back, laughing off the severity of what she’d just said, and started to rummage in the bag again. Having removed a few items of clothing, she beckoned me to take a look. There were several stitches missing from one of the seams on the inside, leaving a small gap into a hidden pocket. She reached inside, removed a small linen pouch, and tossed it into my hands. I pulled apart the draw-string opening and tipped out a handful of coins, counting thirty slivers, three strips and one bar. I looked up at my mother. She must have read my thoughts right off my expression. “Yes, it’s yours to keep, and no, we’re not going to starve without it. If you’re shrewd, you’ll get two sennachs of a feather bed and a full belly out of it.” She took the pouch out of my hand and started putting the coins back into it. “You don’t carry more than ten slivers on you at a time, and you keep the rest in there. People won’t think you’re worth any more.” She laughed again as I frowned slightly. “Not saying you’re a tired mule my love, just a benefit of looking like one of the folk. People won’t think you a prince, a fact you can use like armour.”
There was a side of my mother that I knew. It was a hard-working, forthright, loving member of the village folk. Never taken for a fool, but nor was she cruel for the sake of it. Then there was another side, a side that had survived the roads of the country for years. One which knew the customs and rumours from dozens of towns, almost as well as the folk who lived in them. It walked to the side of roads, never on them. It slept with a blade in arms reach and a chair against the door. It knew the inns that gave you a warm bed with a trustworthy innkeeper, and the ones which left you with an emptied purse and a slit throat. It knew the face of a seller that’d give you a fair rate, and the face of one that’d rip your eyes out of their sockets with a smile.
I don’t think my mother had a “real side”. If you took one side of her away, the other would fall like a two wheeled wagon without a horse. What had happened over the last three days is that one side had simply stepped back, and the other had stepped forwards.
She packed everything back into place, passing me ten of the slivers from the pouch before stuffing it into the compartment. Wrapping the belts back around the bag, she stood back from the bed and motioned. “Put it on, we’ll need to adjust the strap.” I slung the thick strap over my right shoulder and let the bag fall just below my left hip. She tutted loudly, crossing her arms. “Far too low — you’ll go mad with it bumping your leg. Take in some of the slack”. I did as she asked, and the satchel now sat above my hip, with my left hand resting on it. She uncrossed her arms with a frown, came closer and moved the satchel so that it rest further towards my back. “Better. People tend to fuss with their bags when they hold something valuable, so keep your hand off it when you’re travelling.” She made a point of moving it further behind me. “This is so you don’t keep looking at it, which is the other thing folk do. A bag attracts attention, but a worried-over bag attracts blades.” She stood back again with her hands on her hips. “Reminds me, your father has something for you in the forge.”
She turned around and left for the staircase. I gulped slightly at the idea of getting anything from him, but followed all the same. When we came downstairs he was standing over an anvil, working a thin rod of iron that looked like it was going to become a meat hook. Wordlessly, he set down his hammer and tongs, then moved over to a crate in the corner of the smithery. Opening it up, he pulled out a small dagger covered with a dark leather sheath. “Steel” he said, walking back while removing the sheath, revealing a near-mirror shine on it. “From what we had left over.” There was a small engraving where the blade met the quillon, but he returned it into the sheath before I could make it out, then placed it into my hands. I felt its heft between my fingers, before looking up between him and my mother. “I-I don’t know how to use a da-” I started to say, before he interrupted. “Kolag’s agreed to teach you on the road. You’ll learn.” I nodded. Illia’s father? What does he know of needlework? My train of thought was interrupted by the sounding of a horn outside.
For a moment, I could feel my heart beating against my ribcage. In all of the excitement of getting new things, I’d almost forgotten what it was all for. The horn sounded again, twice. Long blasts, that seemed to shake the walls and roof of the smithy. There was activity on the road outside, some shouting, the sound of heavy footfall. I froze up. The dagger suddenly seemed to weigh a hundred pounds, my satchel gnawed at my shoulder, pulling me into the ground. I felt like I was going to tip over, when a steadying hand found my back. It belonged to my mother. “We should get you to the square before they start counting. Have you got everything?” I quickly checked the contents of the satchel, checked my pockets for the ten slivers, checked the stone token that now hung around my neck. My father took the sheathed dagger from my hand and looped my belt through it, as I stood stock-still. In a lot of ways, I wish he hadn’t made the dagger. If someone is relentlessly cruel and awful, hating them comes easy, but when they’re occasionally kind, it makes it all seem so confused.
We walked out the front door, and I took one look back, back into the house that I’d spent seventeen years. I wonder to myself, when did that boy die? Raemir of Sael, the boy who walked out the door. Was it on that scorched battlefield with the rest? Was it when he joined the Intercessors? Was it when he pierced the throat of his first Ardent? I think it was earlier. I think I was born when he shut the door to that smithy: I was the small part of him that knew he wouldn’t be coming back.
The entire village had emptied out onto the roads. Folks said goodbye to one another, embraced, weeped, prayed, as the small-kingsmen rode into the square. Behind them walked a column of people, dressed in dirty animal furs and blemished leathers, holding a wild assortment of weaponry. A few had swords hanging from their belts in scabbards, wearing armour that looked fit for purpose. Most were dressed for a day’s work, wielding the tools of their trade with familiar hands, but turned to a new, unfamiliar purpose. What startled me most is just how similar to the village folk they looked, their clothing, their features, and their expressions. I had hoped that they would arrive with a song on their lips, with joviality and that sense of adventure I had felt before. Their faces shattered my delusion, and a lump formed in my throat as they shuffled past my house towards the square.
My parents and I pushed past the procession, and arrived just as the three small-kingsmen had begun to dismount. I clenched my teeth when I saw the bald man again. He looked shabbier and dirtier than before, with the few days on the road depriving him of whatever creature comforts he was evidently acquainted with. The severe small-kingsman reached into the saddlebag and pulled out the piece of parchment, which he reviewed before saying “Thirty-one and one hundred” to the bald man, who nodded curtly. He moved into the middle of the square before bellowing, as he had done before. “People of Sael, STAND TO! Step forwards to be counted, then join at the back. Thirty-one and one hundred of you will be joining us this fine day, remember that!” After a span, folk began to step out of the crowd that had ringed the village square, before moving to the back of the formation having been recognised with a nod of the head. I saw Illia and Aldin moving forwards to be counted. They must have already said their goodbyes, so I turned to my parents to say mine.
My father had the same, stern glare that he normally had, but it was tinged with something new. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought it was concern. My mother was beaming, with a warm, radiant smile that seemed utterly at ends with everything else around us. She must have noticed the souring of my expression, because she spoke first. “I’m not happy that you’ve gotten tied up in some small-king’s business. I’m happy that you’re seeing the world beyond these roads.” She gestured to the paths branching from the village square, and took a deep breath. “Staying in one village your whole life — that’s no life at all. For you to want that, you need to see what else there is. Just wish it was under…better terms.” The crowd was beginning to thin out as more Sael folk took their place at the back of the troop. She drew me into her arms, creating an island of compassion in a sea of commotion, lasting for but a moment before it disappeared beneath the waves. My father and I shared a brief look, consisting of a curt nod from both of us, and that was the end of that. I shrugged to reposition the satchel on my shoulder, then stepped forwards to be counted.
I followed the other folk to the back of the group, walking past the tired faces of the villagers that had come before us. I found Aldin, Illia and her father in the group, laden with their own bags, satchels and backpacks, and joined them. Aldin had strapped a large splitting axe to his back and Illia carried a small hand-sickle with grim purpose. I suddenly became conscious of the comparatively tiny dagger sheathed on my belt, but assured myself that I’d be happier for not having to carry a heavy blade however far we were travelling. Whenever another Saelite joined the group, there was a process of review and self-reflection. Did they look like they were carrying more supplies than me? Had they dressed in thicker leathers? Did they bring a bigger weapon? All of these questions were followed by the same thought: should I have done that? It occurred to me that another cruelty of the small-kingsmen was a complete lack of information. We weren’t told where we were going, we weren’t told how long we’d be gone. Perhaps even the small-kingsmen didn’t know, and they were in the same boat? Despite Madam Varangia’s chastening, attempting to put myself in their shoes sat horribly with me. So much easier to just see them as the enemy.
We stood in solitary companionship. Physically immediate, but so deep in our own thoughts that we could have been in separate villages. This torpor was only broken when Renee walked up to us. She was not dressed for travel, she was not wielding some sawbones implement as a weapon — she was wearing her apron, as she had done when I met her earlier. “I just came here to wish you off.” Her eyes were still bloodshot, but she looked more composed than before. She stared at our packs and weapons, her gaze lingering on my dagger before returning to our faces. “I’m going to need you all back here by summer to help me with herb picking, so if you could get this business all sorted out before then, that’d be acceptable.” The lightest touch of a smile met her face, coming and going like a gust of wind, and I felt myself get lighter for a moment. There was a pause, as though everyone was trying to concoct something suitably poignant, but it was broken when Illia simply walked up to Renee and embraced her tightly. Aldin and I did the same. There were no words that could capture our emotions: only the gentle touch and presence of friends, who know they may never see each other again.
Shortly thereafter, the column of folk began to move out of the village, and we along with it. They had gotten their one hundred and thirty one, and there was a sense of pride in that. That no one had tried to run, or thrust another into their place. We came through the village square and onto the southern road, getting one last glimpse of Sael as we did. My mother and father were standing by the side, along with Renee and everyone else who hadn’t been called, watching us as we passed by like a boat on a calm lake. There were no cheers, yells, or displays of bravado — just the sound of many feet coming down on the open road.
I DID NOT SEE much of my father during the days before the mustering. A lot of the orders we had for the rest of the sennach had vanished immediately; turns out that folks don’t need a replacement wagon brace when they’re not going to be using the wagon. The few that we did have, were from people fortunate enough to not be called: cast iron pots, hooks, nails; the sort of stuff that folk normally bought when they had a few slivers to spare. Conspicuously, there were no orders for axe heads, ripsaws, or hammers. Nearly every carpenter and woodcutter had been swept up in the levy, and for the first time in Sträm knows how long, the mill would fall silent. My father said he’d handle what orders we had, and that I should ‘see to my other business before I’m off’. A part of me wanted to lay him out right then and there for being so cold and detached — as though he thought we were all merely popping up the river for a spell. I settled for balling my fists and storming out of the house.
So how did I spend my precious remaining days, you wonder? Did I spend them with a stick, honing my nonexistent swordplay? Did I go to the eldest in the village, to plumb the depths of their memory for the battle stories of old? Did I go to the most avid of the village fist-scrappers, and ask them to teach me all they knew of real fighting? Did I play the village drum and wait for the echoes to speak? No. I spent my last three days with my friends, trying my utmost to believe none of it had even happened. My mood was pitch black, with my direst of thoughts reserved for the horsemen: the three that had brought a message of death to my fair village. I drilled their faces into my mind, so deep down that I’d sooner forget my name.
I walked up the winding dirt path to visit Aldin at the lumber mill. His arms were swollen, and cords of muscle rippled across his back as he chopped log after log like a man possessed. I leant against the remnants of a tree and watched for a span, before I deigned to disturb his quiet focus. “You know we’re leaving in two days, along with most of the village?” He placed a log on the stump, brought the axe over his head and swung it down. It split into two equal pieces, which flew to the sides. “I know.” He replaced it with another log and assumed his stance. “You also know it’s coming up on the warm season, so people won’t be needing this to not freeze in the night?” The axe came down to the sound of splintering. “I know.” He reached over to the pile and lifted out another log. “So I guess…what I’m asking is: why are you standing out here, chopping wood, when everyone else is making good on their remaining time?” He put the axe to his shoulder and wiped his brow. “I am making good on my time. Folk’ll still need firewood when we’re gone, and chopping it used to be what I was good at”. He regripped the handle and swung it down with a forceful grunt. I raised an eyebrow as he reached over to the pile for another bit.
“Don’t tell me this is some sort of penance for that nons-” the axe came down and struck the log at an angle, sending it tumbling along the grass with a dull thuddering sound. He fixed me with a cool stare. Aldin cut an unashamedly powerful figure after the years of lumber work; I’d have been intimidated if I didn’t know him as well as I did. “…when you’re finished here” I said, pushing myself off the tree, “Illia, Renee and I are going to spend the day by the river, if you wanted to come along. There’s no forge-work for me to do, so-”
“I’ll meet you there.”
He walked over to the stray log, grabbed it with one hand, and placed it back on the trunk. I nodded, and walked back down the path to the resumed sound of splintering.
On the way back to the village, I detoured through to Illia’s farm. The fields were freshly ploughed, and the smell of sodden earth hung in the air as I passed through them. Illia was walking down the rows with a wicker basket, spreading mulch to either side with a leather glove. She noticed my approach and waved, but continued to throw handfuls of muck. As I got closer, I heard that she was whistling a tune to herself, but one that I didn’t recognise. “No rest for the howling eh?” I chuckled as I stopped next to her. A fey smile crept across her mouth, and she whipped a handful of mulch into my chest. “A-hey, this is a fresh tunic!” I picked off some of the more egregious chunks with my fingers. “Eh, we’re going to the river ain’t we?” she shot a jaunty grin, and continued to spread it across the field as her expression began to sour. “My ‘pa got called up too, so we got to straighten’ things out here before we’re off” She continued onto the next patch of dirt. “Awful early to be feedin the soil, but when all you’ve got is three days…” a gust of wind blew across the field, bearing all the scents of spring and catching her dark hair as she spoke. “My ma’s going to have to look after the farm, the fields, the animals…it’s a lot of work. Shan’t do any good for her gammy knee either”
I studied her face as she turned to look at me. The fields around us seemed to contract, until you could throw a stone from one side to another. The little cottage where Illia had lived all her life looked like a toy. Even the barnhouse, which stood a good many hands taller than any other dwelling in the village, felt tiny in comparison to the greater world outside of Sael. We were small fish swimming in a puddle, and we were about to be thrown into the sea — her eyes said it, and I imagine so did mine. I opened my mouth to say something comforting, but I lost the moment in my own muddled head, and we stood in the field once more. “Are you going to finish that thought, or did the wind snuff the furnace out?” She threw a clod of muck just past my face and laughed when I startled. “Anyway, I’m nearly finished up here, then we’ll have all day to caper through the grass like dullards.” I simply grunted in reply. We strolled back to her cottage, she emptied and stowed her basket, then threw me a rag for wiping down my tunic — not before she’d cleaned her hands with it though.
We took the long way from the farm to the village. Renee had said she’d be helping her mother till midday — we had some time till then, judging by the sun. The route took you into a clearing which had a single tree, with roots jutting out from the ground so you could use them for sitting. “There’s somethin I’ve been thinking about. Something that you’ll know better than I about.” Illia said as she picked her way through a thicket. I was following close behind, and was eating the backswing of all the little branches she displaced. “Ye-ach, yeah?” We both emerged through to the other side, and the lonely tree stood a hundred paces before us. “We have a village drum, as a drum is meant to be the closest thing to the sound that Sträm made, when it first created the world…” I laughed out loud with a partially venomous laugh. “Of all the things to be thinking about now, you’ve chosen this to muse on?”
She tilted her head slightly, but continued unbidden. “And you know how folk get real fervid about hearin the echoes of that sound?” We started to walk towards the tree. “Well, it stands to reason, that if we wanted to hear that sound, we wouldn’t make any noise at all. How are you meant to hear it when you’re banging a bloody drum?” I stopped walking and started applauding her loudly. “You’re in the wrong calling. You should head south and study under a sophist, I’ll even write you a letter of recommendation”. I began to write in the air. “This is Illia, born of the Folk. Her keen mind tore down generations of village tradition in three breaths. Please take her from us.” She smacked me lightly on the arm and continued walking. I followed after her. “I think you’ve muddled two different things. Folk play the drum to remember the sound, not listen for it. That would be barmy, even for the most pious of Strammites”. She didn’t respond, as though she was listening to something else.
“If I wanted to hear a sound from a long long time ago, I’d just make a big horn. Use all the wood that Aldin cuts for it. Then, if I put my ear to it and didn’t hear a jot, it’d save folk a lot of time and trouble.” She gestured with her arms to indicate the enormity of this horn. “You blow through a horn to make noise though, right? Not hear them?” I said slowly, feeling like I was making a fool of myself. “Sure, but just as it makes a big noise, you can also hear small noises with them. I learnt this when I put my head in a hollow trunk once: felt like I could hear the whole forest, all at once.” She bent down to act out the whole activity and I chuckled as I scratched my chin, pondering the validity of what she’d said. We reached the lonely tree, and Illia looked for a suitable tree trunk to demonstrate, to no avail. We sat next to each other on a root and kicked our legs out, listening to the wind as we did.
She broke the silence first, looking at me with her almond eyes. “When you said you’d write a recommendation for me, was that entirely a joke or..?” She most likely had no idea what it even was. Even I wasn’t too sure what one was, but I had heard a coinspinner talking about them one time, and about how much people were willing to pay for them. “I’d write one for you, I mean, if I could write. You’re sharp Illia, more than I, anyway. Seems the world needs wits more than it needs another iron pot or ruddy paring knife.” She laughed, and that same fey smile from before emerged on her face. “I don’t think a pair of hands is all that you are, Rae. Think there’s a lot more to you than that.” We sat in that moment, and for a span, the darkness of the world lifted from my heart.
We met up with Renee at her house on the corner of the village square. She was sat on the steps leading up to her front door, and she jumped up as we came closer. “I said I’d be done by noon! Were you lost, or just struck by sudden blindness?” she said, arms folded. I gingerly put my hand through my hair and changed the subject. “Aldin said he would meet us there so we probably should head over, lest he’s stood by the river thinking we’re all awful”. Renee walked down the steps and clapped me tightly on the shoulder. “Indeed, he should be informed that only two in our number could be called such a thing!” She released me and began to pace in the direction of the river as Illia and I fell in behind.
The village was busier than usual, and even someone who wasn’t present for yesterday’s proceedings would have cottoned onto the sense of malaise that seemed to hang over everything. Fear blanketed Sael like a morning fog. You could see it on every face, hear it in every conversation, and feel it in your own bones. This was not the sudden pang of fear from leaning too far back on a stool, or from hearing a sharp sound you didn’t know. It was gnawing, lingering. It stood up with you in the morning and followed you into your sleep, casting your dreams in shadow till you woke once more. Despite this, folk were still folk. There were still smiles in the village, there were still complaints about the weather, there was still village gossip of a sort so insignificant that it wasn’t worth the air it was said with. Sure we were leaving our homes, off to serve as part of some small-king’s plan, but we were doing it together. Where Sael’s folk went, Sael went, and the whole thing started to feel like something of an adventure. I was struck by a sense of childish wanderlust, buoyed by camaraderie and self-assuredness, but calcified by a deep loathing that ate away at me all the while.
“I think he’s been stung by a riddlebeetle” Renee watched as I dramatically swung a stick at some leaves on a branch, tearing a few to the ground. “This is the ‘hysteria’ phase, which is shortly followed by death.” she said, dryly. We had found a spot by the river which was clear of trees, and where the sun shined unobstructed. Illia was lying, flat on her back staring at the sky. Renee sat with her arms resting on her knees, watching my ‘swordsmanship’. I spun around with the stick in my hand. “Stand to, Renee of Three Waters! I challenge thee to a duel to the death, or worse!” I twirled the stick with all the deftness of a pregnant cow. A frequent footstamper’s tale in the Shaded Grove was ‘The Fair Duelist of Three Waters’, a woman who’d publicly challenge nobility and leave them standing in their smallclothes or bare-arsed.
She was free, she was fair, she was lightning, but the nobles found her to be frightening, a swish with some flair, to make a slit and a tear, for the crowds, it was all very enlightening!
Renee sprung to her feet and began to scour the grass for a suitable stick of her own. She found one, a full finger and a half longer than mine, eliciting a frown from me. “A good craftsman works with what one has to hand! Show me what constitutes swordplay in your contemptible character, Raemir of Sael.” She assumed a position opposite me by the river. What happened next did not as much resemble a duel, as it did two drunken fishermen trying, and failing, to catch the same fish. After a whole minute of swinging, all we had to show for our trouble was a rapped knuckle and a grazed brow. We decided that the whole thing was a rotten idea from the start; the sticks were downed. I rubbed the spot on my forehead as Aldin emerged from the treeline, looking like his regular jovial self. “Hail Aldin!”, I sarcastically beckoned, “How fared the battle with the log-creatures? Is a tree left standing in the forest?” He strolled over to us and sat down. “They came thick and fast m’lord, but all were seen to rightly. I see you were assaulted by them too.” He poked the mark on my head and I winced, swatting his finger away. Renee interjected from where she sat in the grass, seeing an opportunity to verbally pounce.
“Raemir’s abilities don’t extend beyond the metallic I’m afraid. He’ll make an excellent swordbearer for you in a couple of days, though…” Her voice trailed off. The hatred came crawling back, but before it could settle in completely, Illia raised a beckoning hand from the grass. “Do all you hear that?” she said, soft as a whisper. We stood for a moment, listening intently. The gentle rushing of the river, the sound of the wind in the reeds. The birds that sang to one another from the branches, fluttering and dancing from twig to twig. We all stood in the relative silence of the green, straining to hear whatever Illia was hearing. I gave up first. “I…can’t hear anything, ‘cept for the woods.” She brought her hands together in some sort of prayer, her eyes shut tight. “Exactly — ain’t it just great?”
My father worked the small hours until the last evening before the mustering. The forge fires would be lit when I left in the morning, and the clanking of a hammer would still be ringing as I went to sleep. I assumed he was kept busy by the remaining orders we had, and left him to it just as he’d asked. Both of my parents were kept from the call, blessed with the value of being the village’s only smiths, not including myself. My mother was the reason I spent those remaining days with Illia, Aldin and Renne. She encouraged me to see them, and I believed she was the reason that my father decided to release me from my duties. When I went to bed, she’d sit at the end of it and tell me things from the wider world. She was not born here — she came from the other side of the country: a different world, as far as I was concerned. Travelling from village to village, town to town, she plied her trade for folk of many different tongues. Then she came to Sael, and decided that the road had nothing more to offer her.
“Now, the small-kingsman said that the folk up north didn’t have as much time as we do, so it stands to reason they’re going up there to call on folk, but then coming back south, past us, for whatever’s next.” She was using a piece of leather, and a flint to mark it with where Sael was, and where the villages up north sat. The only light in the room was a small candle resting on a stool, which threw harsh silhouettes across the walls. “Couldn’t they have come from the east or west?” I shifted in my bed. “No my love, not east anyway. There’s a long string of mountains, here.” She started scouring little peaks to the east of Sael. “Only place you can get around nearby is from the north, so they would have gone to those villages first if they had. There’s a path through those mountains southeast of us,” she scored a line through the peaks “but you couldn’t get horses to travel it, even if you could talk to them”. She paused, and ran a hand through her curly bronze hair, letting out a sigh. “They could have come from the west, to the border, but I’ve not heard a peep from the coinspinners about a real war. That’s the sort of thing that gets around, ‘specially with those people.”
She brought the flint down to the leather again, and started to mark out a dashed circle below us. “They’ll probably be going down the Two Steps Road: that takes you through here, an old stomping ground of mine. They don’t shake hands down there, on account of a sickness that makes folk’s skin turn foul — so if they offer you a hand, assume that means they know you’re not from there, and they’re looking to fleece you.” She mimed putting her hand out to shake, then quickly pulled it back. “Also, you don’t ever talk about the small-kings; depending on how far down the road you are, it could be any one of three. There’s bad blood about that sort of thing, some folk care, some folk don’t — best not to ever mention it, or get involved if someone else is grumbling. You remember what I told you about that?” I nodded and recited from memory. “Mud is mud, ‘cept when an outlander says it, then it’s gold.” She tussled my hair and smiled, before taking the glowing candle and leaving me to my own thoughts.
Sleep had not come easily, and when I awoke, it was still the small hours. The sounds of night were still abundant, and I could see streaks of blue light bleeding in from the outside. I pushed myself out of bed, threw on a long tunic and small clothes, then crept out of my room as quietly as I could. My parents room was opposite mine, with a wooden staircase leading down to the smithery on the left. I inched my way onto the staircase, tensing as each careful step elicited a sonorous groan from the decades-old wood. However, I reached the bottom without obvious alarm, and after checking that the coast was clear, made for the front door. Gently lifting the heavy iron latch off the hook, I pushed it open just enough for me to slip through, then shut it slowly behind me.
The deep shadows and blue hues of the moonlight made Sael look almost ethereal, as though I was seeing it in the reflection of a pool. The feeling of dirt beneath reassured me that it was real — eyes can lie, and ears may deceive, but feet always know home when they feel it. I followed the path to the village square: one that I’d walked a thousand times, and could have done even if I were still asleep. I stood among the flagstones, took a full breath, and shut my eyes. These places existed within my mind just as much as they did within the world. I could take the path heading west, one whose ground is worn by wagon wheels and footfall, up to where it forks at the rain-smoothed rock. From there I could head downhill, to Illia’s farm: where gusting winds blew the smells of tilled earth for miles; or I could head uphill to the lumber mill, nestled among the tall trees. I saw memories of Aldin and the others, loading up a cart with clean-cut planks, arms slick with work sweat, but smiling all the same. All of them were.
I could take the path heading east, towards the river, where we had played two days prior. I see the tree that Renee tried to climb, the flowers and plants sprawled around it. I look up; the rag is still there, and I see us all laughing as it is pulled down. The colours of spring have been replaced with autumnal shades as my mind puts the scene in its rightful place. I pulled back to the square again. I could take the road north, back to home. I’d climb back into my bed, and awaken to discover that the last few days were merely a dream. No blaggard small-kingsmen had come, no call to arms had been sounded. I’d go down to the forge, fetch my apron and finish that horseshoe as I said I would. I finally opened my eyes, and looked to the south. That was the way I would be going. My head was heavy with that knowledge, and my heart poured scorn on the men that would take us there.
I became dimly aware that I was being watched from under the awning of the Shaded Grove. A woman stepped out from the shadows and into the moonlight, walking with a gnarled walking stick, a light hunch to her back, while clad in thick leathers and fur. “Only two sorts walk the roads this hour. Those with a dark character, or a burdened one.” She jabbed the stick in my direction. “Which one have you, Master Raemir?” Her voice was aged, but gentle, and the words seemed to waft into my ears as she said them. I recognised her as Madam Varangia, the oldest soul in the village, and one of the few that held two names. Like my mother, she was not born in Sael; she came from far away, many years ago, and her tongue rang with sounds unlike any others I knew. Children believed that she could speak with fire when she wanted to, a notion that she’d use to great effect when they were being mischievous, and one with a whisper of truth to it.
“Which one do I have to choose so that you won’t tell my parents I was out this late?” She tapped her stick on the flagstones. “Burdened — but I will be the judge of that.” She slowly trotted over, each step supported by the twisted branch, and she leaned in close until there was barely two fingers of distance between us. Her lips curled in a half-smile. “Should I give you my staff? Worries age the soul and skin, and I consider myself to be youthful compared with what I presently see. What wearisome thoughts have made a boy so old?” I felt my shoulders sink, and a lump emerge in my throat. I began to open up, mostly out of surprise at how brazen her approach had been. “My friends and I…a lot of folk…were called by the small-kingsmen. A lot of us are leaving, and I’m just not sure how the village… I think those men have destroyed it. I hate them like nothing else, for coming here and…” She held up a hand and stopped me, as my head sank low. “These are tired thoughts, child. They’ve been wrung-out before, and they’re sure to be again.” She shifted on her feet as she looked up to the sky. “Years ago, when the village was wracked with an evil sickness, and we burned more houses than we built,”
“I walked the green ways, and screamed out in my tongue and yours. Demanded that the spirits, the birds, the sky, or even the sound would come down, and tell me why. Why must I bear witness to the death of my own kin? Why must I stare into the flames of another home, which just sennachs before had hosted such love and laughter? Why must I hear the weeping of children, who could not even see their parents bodies before we torched them? Give me the culprit, the wrongdoer, so I might mete out my anguish, and lessen its power over me!” Her hand tightened on the head of the staff, then relaxed again. “It was in the silence I received, that I found my truth. There was no grand act of artifice, no puppeteer, no singular voice that came forward and took fault. Should it have been the spirit of the coinspinner who came from the southern road, body filled with disease, or the one who bequeathed it to him? Should it have been the folk who bartered in the square, bringing the poison into their homes with handfuls of goods thereafter? The world is so vast — filled with so many souls, that no knife could cut the blame into small enough pieces to satisfy me.”
She pointed a long, wrinkled finger at my chest and stared directly into my eyes. “The affairs at play here, are selfsame. Do you fault the small-kingsmen, for carrying a writ they had no hand in writing? A writ that, had they refused to carry it, would have brought about their own deaths? Do you curse the name of the small-king, pressed to yield for a call they may themselves gainsay? The council? Who may have believed that they too had no choice, cursing their hands even as they signed it? How far back must your hate be doled out, Master Raemir, before it is fully spent? Apportioning so little to each link in the chain, that you would fare better to empty the seas with a ladle?” She retracted her finger, and rested her hand back on the staff. “Save that hatred for the evils that man does, and spare some warmth for those who are compelled to do them. Your heart will be lighter that way.” She turned to continue walking down the road, before stopping and motioning a hand. “Oh, and if you’re troubled about the fate of the village: I wasn’t called up, so I’ll keep a beady eye on it. I have done so for quite some time, actually.” She continued to trot up the road, and began to whistle as the sun rose.