Coldheart and Iron: Part 24

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Tiffany and I managed to catch up to the sleds after a couple of hours. Tiffany was all too happy to collapse on the sleds rather than try to walk through the pain of her missing hand, but I was anxious because we hadn’t seen anyone from Camille’s ambush group since I’d watched her vanish to the north. Depending on how far north she got before ditching the hand, it could be a while before we got word. The monsters would lock on to the hand they’d marked once the Wayfinders leading them away stopped shooting long enough for their heat signatures to vanish, but there was no telling what would happen after that.

Camille would probably do her best to thin their numbers some more, but there was no knowing if she’d lead them further north as she killed them, or if she’d just take down as many as she could before vanishing into the snow. She could be back in a day or a week. She could send the other Wayfinders back or keep them with her the entire time. There was no way to know until they started showing back up and I fretted over the problem until we found a cave we could shelter in for the night.

While Natalie led everyone else in setting up tents or barricades inside the cave in case we needed to defend ourselves, I set up the one table we’d brought it, sanitized it, and went to work on Tiffany’s arm. It took about an hour to get everything fixed properly and sewn up, but it was a simple procedure compared to the injuries I’d tried to fix several weeks ago. Thanks to the double dose I gave her, Tiffany drowsed through most of it. She was so out of it, I had to get someone else to help me move her into the tent she shared with two other trainees.

I left her in the care of her friends and, after cleaning up, went through the motions of settling in for the night. After the slow build of tension over the last few days and the attack today, I was exhausted. Instead of sleeping, though, I left Natalie and Lucas as they cleaned up from dinner and took the first shift at the cave entrance. I sat in my corner, bundled up in my thermal gear with an extra blanket just in case, watching the snowstorm build and then blow away piles of snow.

I wound up watching all night, waiting for the signs of an attack or for Camille’s group of Wayfinders to come through the door, laughing and congratulating each other on killing more monsters. By the time we were all packed up and ready to go, there was still no sign of them. I managed to keep focused all day, but Natalie and Lucas knew something was up. That night, they insisted on me resting after I’d checked in on Tiffany. I tried to argue, but I knew they were right.

After a proper night’s sleep, the next day was easier. I got us moving a bit faster and managed to find us a cave for the evening, instead of hiding out in the first dense patch of trees we found. As we left the following morning, the blizzard started to subside. By that evening, it had mostly cleared up. Thankfully, there was no sign of the monsters, but we were still waiting for Camille to make it back.

Six days after our hurried departure, the day Tiffany started cutting back on her painkillers, Camille and the four Wayfinders she’d brought with her showed up at our camp perimeter as we settled in for the evening. I barely paused to put on my thermal gear after I heard the sentry call out. By the time I was dressed and outside, Camille was practically to our tent. After moving aside to let her inside, I did a quick visual inspection of her companions. Thankfully, the only injury was Ben’s from a few days ago, and he’d already taken care of it, so I was able to get back into the tent just as Camille was sitting down to eat.

After I’d taken off my gear and cleaned up Camille’s, she’d turned around to face me. I could see the exhaustion clouding her eyes, but we both knew she needed to report first. Once I was ready, I nodded to her.

“After we left, things went about as expected. We drew them north for a full day, before the first few started to catch up. We mowed them down pretty quickly, so we kept going for another day before the rest of the group started to catch up. After that, we ditched the tag and made our way to the rendezvous point. Unfortunately, some of them managed to track us.”

“What?” Lucas leaned forward, almost throwing himself off the campstool he’d been sitting on as he ate. “There’s no way!”

Camille shrugged. “Half a day north of the bunker, the blizzard tapered out so they must have figured out how to follow footprints or we just left worse ones than usual. Whatever the cause, I can’t argue with the results. We hadn’t been heading toward the rendezvous for more than half a day before the first of them started catching up to us.”

“But they haven’t… It’s been over fifteen years since they appeared and they never-”

“Lucas.” Natalie grabbed his bowl before he could drop it. “Calm down and let Camille talk.” Lucas nodded and, after a few slow breaths, took his bowl back.

“Anyway. They tracked us so I used every trick I knew to lose them on the way to the rendezvous. Nothing worked. So we slowed down, went a little out of our way, and then picked up your trail once we knew you’d be passed. I had one of the others scout it for us, to make sure we were staying close but not so close that we might lead them to you guys. Today, after two days without contact, I decided we should be clear of whichever of them found our trail.”

“Did you notice anything else about them that might show a change in their behavior?” I took out a notebook and started writing down everything Camille had said. After I looked back up at her, she shook her head.

“No, nothing that stood out. They were vulnerable in all the usual places, none of them looked any different, and they all still fell for my traps so long as we hid our heat signatures, so I don’t know how to explain this unless someone got tagged.

“As far as I know, only Tiffany got tagged.” I made a couple more notes in my book. “You get some rest, Camille. I’ll go debrief your group quick and ask Tiffany if she has any ideas.”

“Yeah?” Camille leaned back. “How’s she doing? She seemed pretty alright with losing her right hand.”

“She’s been out of it until pretty much today, and she hasn’t really cleared up enough to be talking yet. I’ll need to see if she’s alright with cutting back a little further so we can have a conversation.”

“What a trooper. I haven’t seen anyone else handle it that well.” Camille pulled out her sleeping bag and plopped down on top of it. “Most of them try to hide it or deny that it’s going to be that bad.”

“Well, she’s left-handed so she’ll still be able to be a Wayfinder just fine.” Natalie moved over to Camille and draped one of our blankets over her. “She’ll need to relearn a few things, but a break in Chicago will get her all the time she needs to make up her mind.”

“I think her mind’s pretty made up.” Lucas chuckled as he moved to his own sleeping bag. “She mutters about showing those sons of bitches what a badass she is every time she falls asleep on the sled.”

“Well, she’ll still have time to change her mind or retrain herself once we get to Chicago.” I started putting my thermal gear back on. “Maybe she’ll change her mind once she sees what the retirement package is for someone who loses a limb while Wayfinding.”

“They usually do.” Camille yawned and pulled the blanket over her head.

“I’m glad you made it back safely, Camille.”

“Thanks, Marshall. I’m glad you’re all safe.”

After everyone was covered up, I quickly clambered out of the tent and did my rounds quickly. All of the Wayfinders that had gone with Camille needed to be woken up, but they reported the same things she did. After a few minutes of talking to each of them, I made my way to Tiffany’s tent and, after knocking, let myself in.

“Tiffany?”

“Yes, boss?” Tiffany was sitting up against a pile of backpacks covered in a blanket, trying her boots with one hand.

“You up for a quick chat? Clear enough?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany set her boots aside and picked up the little bottle of pills I gave her every morning. “I’ve only been taking half of what you’ve been giving me at night. I sleep on the sled so much that I mostly use the nights for a bit of exercise and one-hand practice.”

I arched my eyebrows. “One-hand practice?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany poked her boots and waved her right arm at the pile of backpacks behind her. “I’m still struggling with my shoes, but packing is easy. I think the shoes will be easier once I’ve healed up and can use my arm for more than waving.” Tiffany giggled. “Which super weirds people out, when I wave without a hand. It’s hilarious.”

I chuckled along with Tiffany but cleared my throat after a moment. “You sure you’re alright?”

“No, but I’m okay for now and at least I’m alive.”

“Good point.” I sat down across from her and glanced over at her sleeping tent mates. “Are we going to disturb them?”

“Nah, they sleep with earplugs now. We’re good.”

“Okay.” I cracked my knuckles absently and read over the notes I’d been taking. “Can you walk me through what happened when you got tagged? Lieutenant Camille reported seeing some odd behavior while trying to get back to us and I’m trying to figure out what’s been going on.”

“Well, it was pretty straight-forward, really. Almost disappointingly since I lost a hand over it.” Tiffany grabbed her arm near the stump and settled it into her lap. “Ben and I were leading a group of them toward where Lieutenant Camille was waiting, doing a few vital strikes to thin them out a bit. Things were going fine until they started to cluster around Ben a bit. He started shooting at them and I ran to help him out. Only he kept firing instead of doing bursts, so his gun probably lit up like the sun to them, so they started returning fire.

“I couldn’t tell you how he got out of that unscathed, but I caught up to him as he finally stopped firing. One of them, though, a scout, was a few paces away and lined up a tracer shot. Ben couldn’t see it, focused as he was, so I pulled him out of the way. As he fell, the scout fired and hit me in the hand with the tracer round.” Tiffany held up the stump where here hand used to be and smiled ruefully.

“The lieutenant must have seen this happening, because she started firing on the scout and all of the others right about then. After that, you know everything. She yelled at me to remove my glove, tie it off, and take my painkillers. A couple minutes later, you showed up and that’s the last bit I remember.”

“When did Ben get hit, then?”

“What?”

“You said Ben never got shot when they fired at him. When I showed up, though, he had a small wound on his upper left arm.” I gestured to my own arm, showing her where he’d been grazed. “Barely worth addressing beyond the tape to close the hole in his suit.”

“I must have missed that.” Tiffany shrugged. “I was a little busy getting shot to be paying attention to what was going on with him at that point.”

“Fair enough.” I made a couple notes and tried to ignore the icy claw scraping the bottom of my stomach. I checked her dressing quick, asked a few questions about how she was feeling and, left her tent after making sure she was going to be alright until the morning. All the while, I tried to explain away what had been happening as a string of coincidences. I tried to find any excuse I could but, before I knew it, I was outside Ben’s tent.

I went inside and smiled at him. “Sorry to be back again so soon, Ben, but I just wanted to double-check your injury before I went to sleep.”

“Oh.” Ben stood and grabbed his arm self-consciously. “I mean, it’s fine. It was barely a scrape then and it scabbed over before I got a chance to do anything with it.”

“Just to be safe. I’m the group’s medic, now.” I pulled out my medical bag and gestured to the stool near their cook stove. “Just a quick look and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Really, Marshall, I’m fine.”

“Ben, do I need to make it an order?” I crossed my arms but kept my voice calm. “Sit. Down.”

Ben sighed and sat. He held out his arm and looked away as I rolled up his sleeve. When I got past the elbow, I saw a giant white pad of gauze, much larger than he’d need for the simple scrape he claimed he had. I pulled the grimy old tape off and, as I pulled the bandage away, caught sight of a greenish patch of skin with red lines emanating from what looked like a giant pimple.

“Ben.”

“It’s fine, Captain. I empty it every night. There’s no chance for the trace to take effect if I’m constantly draining it!” Ben looked at me, careful to shift so he couldn’t see his arm. “I figured it out. This way, I won’t need to lose my arm for such a little scrape.”

I sighed and closed my eyes. “Ben. Benjamin. This is the trace. The green, the red lines, the white head, all of it. Your blood is full of it and, if we check your other elbow, we’ll see your veins starting to show just as brightly red as these.”

“But I fixed it, Captain. It was just a tiny hit and I need my arm.”

“Pull down your sleeve, put on your thermal gear, and come with me.” I stood up and slung my bag over my shoulder.

“But I need to rest. I’ve been moving almost without stopping for six days.” Ben clasped his hands and fell to his knees. “Just let me sleep, I don’t need to lose my arm. I’ll be fine! I don’t feel sick at all.”

I nodded. “You’ve got one thing right, Ben. You won’t need to lose your arm.”

Ben smiled and sank down. “Oh, thank god. That’s so good to hear. I’ll just be a minute, Captain, and I’ll be right out.”

“Don’t make me come back.”

After he nodded, I left the tent and walked up to where one of the guards was stationed. “As soon as Ben and I leave camp, get Lieutenants Camille and Natalie up. Tell them we need to break camp immediately.”

“Sir?”

“Just do it. I’ll explain once we’re moving.”

“Yes, sir.”

I went back to the tent and waited. When Ben emerged, I grabbed his uninjured arm and pulled him toward the edge of camp, leading him deeper into the forest we’d picked as that night’s camping spot. “C’mon, Ben. We’ve got a little errand to run.”

“Oh, should I grab my gear?”

“No, I’ve got my gun so we should be fine.”

“Okay.” Ben smiled and followed me past the perimeter and into the forest. Occasionally, I’d glance over at him and see the faint red like coming from his face as he leaked radio waves from the trace that had been planted and given time to multiply in his bloodstream. Once we’d walked about an hour into the words, using the excuse of needing some plants to supplement our food stores to keep him focused and quiet, I turned to him.

“You’ve got the trace, Ben. It’s too far progressed to stop at this point. Even cutting your arm off wouldn’t fix it now.” I took a few steps back and leaned against a tree, putting my body so that he wouldn’t be able to see it when I thumbed the safety off.

“We’re close to Chicago, though. They can do something about it there. I’ve heard about treatments that kill the trace and then I won’t need to lose my arm at al.”

“That’s not how it works. Your group kept getting attacked because they were tracking you.” I pointed to him for emphasis. “Now, you can either keep walking on your own, to lead them away, or I’ll kill you quickly now so you don’t need to suffer when they catch up to you.”

“What?”

“You agreed to these terms when we hired you.”

“But, I mean, I can’t-”

“You lied to us and put all our lives in danger. You either choose now or I’ll choose for you.”

“I can’t-” Ben stepped forward and I raised my gun. “I’m- I’m not going to die out here, not for some little scrap.” Ben clenched his fists and took a few steps forward this time. “I refuse! I won’t accept this. You can’t abandon me out here. You can’t leave me to die so you can live. I don’t deserve to die like thi-”

I raised the gun and fired, three times in quick succession. Ben dropped where he was. I grabbed the shell casings from the snow, slung my rifle over my shoulder, and started sprinting back toward the camp. Fifteen minutes later, I explained the whole thing between gasps and we moved out. Everyone looked over their shoulders as we went, fleeing through the forest with the prospect of a monster attack looming over our shoulders.

When we finally stopped to rest, the sun was setting again and even the people riding the sleds were exhausted. We made camp that night, inside another forest, and did our best to put our close call out of our minds. We were still a few weeks away from Chicago and every one of us was thinking only of being able to rest. Despite my exhaustion, all I could think of was Ben’s face as he tried to make excuses and the determination Tiffany had shown when she’d had to sacrifice her hand.

Every time I thought of her, seated in the snow as she waited to have her hand taken off while Ben stood over her and pretended he was fine, I wanted to go back and shoot him again. I wouldn’t get the chance, though. There’d be nothing left by the time I got back there, even if I went right away. The monsters wouldn’t leave much lying around once they finally tracked him down.

Tabletop Highlight: Player Fatalism and How to Salvage the Game

I honestly don’t know if I can speak for everyone, but it often feels like every tabletop gamer I know has a story about a game where someone was constantly pessimistic and fatalistic. Someone, perhaps even them, spent an entire session, or even several sessions, throwing their hands up in the air every time something bad happened and complaining that they knew this was going to happen or that there’s no point to them trying any more if they’re just going to die.

This happened recently in one of my games. There’s a player, the one I often bring up as the person who does some dumb stuff or makes questionable decisions (he featured heavily in the “Up for Interpretation” post from three weeks ago) who has been engaging in this kind of behavior lately. To be entirely fair, his character has died as many times as the rest of the party put together and he seems to always come up short when I roll to determine who gets to be the target of whatever is about to happen. Even his rolls tend toward failure when he tries something. He missed a sneak attack that would have insta-killed the enemy spell caster because he rolled in the single digits on his attack. He failed a skill check to make it back to safety afterwards and would have been knocked unconscious if not for an ability of his special weapon that gave him temporary hit points. The poor guy has had it rough.

To be entirely, fair, though, he makes a lot of assumptions and does a lot of stuff without thinking it through. He died during that same fight because he hopped over a barricade to attack an enemy he could have just stabbed from where he was. I let him live because he apparently didn’t realize he could do that and it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t have done it if he could have avoided it seeing as he was so low on hit points. Though, to continue being fair, he also didn’t retreat from the battle or take a back seat once he was down to nothing but his last few hit points either. He’d already seen how much damage his enemies could do with one hit and yet he continued to try to front-line them.

A lot of that behavior and those unneccessary risk-taking could have been a result of his expectation that his current character won’t be much longer for this world. He’s already created a new character to replace him, prompted by my jokes about a TPK, which I’ve managed to avoid so far since the players know when to run. There was a close moment, though, because they messed up some earlier stuff and had to deal with the consequences. That was probably the first time they were pushed to their limits from a marathon of battles rather than a single tough monster. It was winnable, though. I was never going to put them in a situation where they feel powerless or like they are being punished. If they screw up enough to get themselves killed, it will mostly be swift and decisive. Otherwise, they’ll always have options and only poor decision-making or bad luck will get them all killed.

It can be hard to keep again running, especially a story-drive one, when one of the players just lets go as soon as there’s any tension. I can’t make the game feel dramatic if someone is just giving up as soon as things look bad. They start to get angry if it keeps happening and a lot of drama and tension in story-telling is uncertainty or challenge, so I wind up trying to keep them invested without sacrificing too much story. I don’t think this player’s attitude is affecting the other players very much, but I’m hoping it’s just the recent string of bad luck he’s had (which is really just his perception of events, he’s also had some really good luck since he’s only come close to dying or getting captured).

I’m going to talk to him (and will have, before this post goes up) about what’s been going on and workshop some ideas on how to get through it. This isn’t a problem unless it’s making the game less fun for the other players and the person displaying the fatalistic behavior refuses to change. Usually when this happens, as is happening with my player, there’s something causing it. Before you try to address the problem, you need to figure out what this underlying cause is. Once you know that, you need to verbally (and privately) address it with the player so they have the opportunity to change. Not everyone realizes they’re doing it. I’m not even sure if my player recognizes that he’s doing it.

For him, the source lies in some of his first exposure to D&D and a long string of bad decisions compounded by bad luck. His first DM was very adversarial. He tried to manipulate the players constantly, forced them to act a certain way, did his level best to kill them constantly, and gave all of the good magic items and experiences to his closest friends so that other players wound up with under-leveled and under-geared characters who just died all that much more frequently. He’s had a few more experiences between now and then (most of which I’ve seen), but one characteristic of his gaming has always been making decisions without considering the consequences and bad luck on rolls. From the silly little campaign I ran to test out a book world I’d developed to a “Shits and Giggles” campaign I ran to fill my weekends, to my current serious campaign where he seems to constantly get the short end of the stick. Sometimes, it’s because he accidentally stepped on the large stick he had and wound up breaking it, but I’m sure that doesn’t feel very fun to him.

Problems with characters and DMing I can fix. I have no problem helping my players create the best possible version of their character (though I usually insist they stick to a personality rather than just minmaxing) and I generally try to avoid getting adversarial in any context. Bad luck and poor decision-making… There’s not much more I can do beyond being forgiving when he’s legitimately making a mistake as a player versus when he’s doing something reckless or risky. It’s a fine line, but I wrote an entire blog post about how to tell the difference so I’m confident I can manage it.

I hope we can figure something out. I’d hate to think he’s not having fun. That’s all I really want, as a DM.

Visiting Grandma

Like any decent grandchild, I loved my grandmother. She made me cookies, I weeded her gardens, and then we’d sit around eating cookies and watching game shows. I liked to visit her as often as I could growing up, but it wasn’t always easy. Every time we crossed the river, the family got smaller.

We had often talked about bringing her over the river to stay permanently. The river was brutal, but it was fast. Like ripping off a bandage or chopping off a limb. You had to be quick if you wanted to survive.

The forest, though, was a nightmare. It wasn’t as lethal, but the amount of work it took to get through would probably be the death of her. She was a lovely, hardy old woman who would probably outlive her kids, but the march through the trees would have been too much for her.

At this point, I was the only one who made the effort to visit her. My parents weren’t as hardy as she was and they were getting up in years. My siblings had mostly settled down, refusing to travel beyond our little village for anything. They tried to pretend otherwise, but I knew they were afraid. I could see it in the way they clutched their doors and herded their children away when I visited.

I’d made the trip only once before, and that was with a hired escort. Today, I was going to do it alone, even if I was too broke to hire anyone. She hadn’t written in weeks and someone needed to check, the dangers be damned. I could do it. I knew that, if it was at all possible to do alone, I could make the trip over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

Saturday Morning Musing

You know what I’d love to do? I’d love to take a month off from work and all obligations so I could stock up on groceries and hide away in a cozy cabin on the side of a mountain somewhere. Set myself up with no obligations, no social media, and no schedule so I can just live for a month. Eat when I’m hungry, sleep when I’m tired, and just let my life drift into some kind of equilibrium. Rest up from the exhaustion of worrying about money, about my job, and all the anxieties of living in the modern world so I can figure out how much of my constant exhaustion is me wearing myself out with constantly working on stuff or not getting enough sleep and how much is from trying to cope in a world that seems to always be somewhat offset from my natural pace.

I’m currently promising myself that, once I’ve eliminated all of my debt, I’m going to take that vacation. It’s still a few years off, yet, but I feel like I’ve finally got a realistic grasp of how long it’ll take me. Back when I moved to Madison and had to deal with the prospect of paying back my student loans, I slapped a bunch of numbers together and figured I’d need about five years at my then salary to get everything paid off. That was untrue. I failed to account for taxes, the much higher cost of living in Madison, the fact that my minimum monthly loan payments would be mostly interest at first, and that I’d need a new car almost immediately on moving to Madison. Turns out that, even with about ten thousand dollars worth of raises over the three years I had that first job, I was just barely making ends meet (and spent a lot of time sliding into a decent a mount of credit card debt because I actually couldn’t afford to live at my initially salary once my car payments kicked in).

I’m in a better situation now, thanks to clearing up some of the debt, a much cheaper living situation, and the fact that I get paid for any overtime I work, now. I’m finally getting a good handle on my finances and get to enjoy the feeling of watching the numbers in my bank accounts go up until I dump it into a loan or something. Financial security feels nice, even if the forty-eight hour work weeks I need to do it leave me often at odds with my desire to rest more or try to get more writing done. An extra eight hours doesn’t sound like much until you’re cramming it into four days. I won’t deny I have it way better than people who need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, but I wish we could all just do forty hours of work and not need to worry about money. That’d be really nice.

Ever since I left college, I’ve lived pretty much every day with the mantra of “pay off my loans and do whatever it is I have to do in order to maximize my long-term financial and personal health.” It’s a long mantra, but it’s important to stay focused on that specific goal. Being debt free isn’t going to be helpful at all if I’ve got stressed-induced health issues or I’m constantly sick from years of living in terrible situations and a horrible diet. I can’t spend my money frivolously, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t buy myself things to make me happy or that are perhaps a little more expensive. The whole point of having money beyond what I need to support the requirements of a (relatively) healthy life is to enrich my life. New foods, the occasional convenience, hobbies, and good causes. All of them are fair game because they’re usually things that inject some positivity into my life when I’m struggling. Which is usually when I’m making a decision that’s the right choice in the long-term but means being upset or suffering or being majorly put out right now.

It’s kind of interesting to know you’re making the right choice and still feel miserable. Whenever I fall into a pit of self-pity, this is usually my focus. Thankfully, it isn’t as often as it used to be. Still, though, it can be really easy to get focused on how my life is nothing but an endless string of decisions made to maximize my future potential for success or happiness or whatever in exchange for present-day discomfort or negative feelings. If I didn’t allow myself some hobbies and the occasional bit of short-term happiness, I’d probably struggle with it more. Nowadays, I actually make sure to spend my personal interests budget every month, usually on a new game or going to the movies. I used to tell myself I had to make one dumb but fun decision every month, but it usually wound up being something along the lines of staying up all night playing video games. Now I just stay up all night writing or watching the stars, often more frequently than once a month.

The original intent was to get myself to move outside of my comfort zone a little more, to do something relatively harmless that would encourage the kind of impulsive joy I used to occasionally indulge in when I was still a college student. Stuff like random all-nighters at the library with my friends, drinks before writing a paper, getting the gang together for an all-day D&D session,  going to a bar and flirting with a random stranger while we both watched the Lord of the Rings marathon that was on the TV. You know, normal stuff. It’s just a lot harder to swing once you’re out of college because the bars feel louder and you can’t always just stagger back to your room if you drink too much. The college libraries don’t really like being filled with non-students and you’re probably not going to run into anyone you know anyway. Walking into a random bar and flirting with a stranger still works, but you generally don’t get to do it until the bars are too noisy to hold a conversation and my conversation skills are 99% of my ability to flirt.

It’s kinda difficult to be impulsive and thrill-seeking when that mostly means buying a tube of cookie dough and eating it with a spoon. Life as an adult is weird, sometimes. Or maybe it’s just my life that’s weird.

My Mind is a Battlefield

My mind is a battlefield:
a land ravaged by war
where the once green fields
and luscious forests
are now gone,
replaced by blasted earth
and barren, burnt wastelands
full of sad, lost refugees
who shy from everyone they meet.

My mind is a world at war:
full of brutal savagery
and the most wondrous beauty
locked in some twisted dance
that never ends
while someone wanders
searching through the misery
to find the scrap of truth
that makes 
this travesty
worth it.

Maybe you can understand why
I do not like to dwell on things,
why I often seem vacant
and perhaps unmindful of
the people and things around me
or why I might not be listening
when you’re talking to me.
There’s a war going on and
I don’t have much energy 
to spare
because I’m the general
of both armies.

While you’re talking to me,
I’m trying to navigate through my mind,
watching out for landmine memories
and avoiding guerilla anxieties,
not to mention all the other soldiers
I have sent to sabotage me.
I usually never make it out.
I know all my own tricks
and there are too many landmines
to avoid them all,
especially when the guerrillas
are chasing you.

Yet I go in, the external me
who watches this all unfolding,
and hope to find
the 
sepia photograph
or inspiring tale 
of truth
that makes enduring
this constant, ceaseless war
a viable option.
The armies leave me be
but the guerrillas will not stop
planting landmines and
chasing me towards them,
despite the call of peace
and my humanitarian efforts
to stave off the nuclear winter
the generals consider simply for the sake
of concluding.

 

Octopath Traveler Was Pretty Alright, I Guess

So, I’m willing to admit that a certain amount of my “underwhelmed” reaction to this game is because it was hyped so much by friends and the few advertisements I saw. That being said, the game I was sold via recommendations and the advertisements does not, at all, feel like the game I actually bought. The game I was promised had tons of choices and all this variation and wonder and the game I got has fun battle mechanics and a rather stunted plot with little variety available to me. Because, if I’m being honest, the plot is kinda boring, even for a JRPG. Honestly, I’m still not even sure what the plot is beyond individual quest lines that have nothing tying them together.

Your character has a skill. They use the skill to complete a task in order to resolve a conflict that has interrupted their routine. They are prompted by some minor portion of their personality to pursue some greater task elsewhere. You move on to the next town. You repeat the whole saga for a new character. They join your party. You continue until you get to another portion of one character’s mission and then stuff happens that really doesn’t differ.

For how convoluted the skill crap is, in terms of actually completing the side quests, there really isn’t a whole lot of explanation. If you’re playing through this, I recommend ignoring the side quests until you’ve unlocked all of the characters so you understand what all the abilities are and can figure out how the shit you’re supposed to get fresh ingredients for some whiny-ass baker who can’t go talk to the shop keeper 50 pixels away from him. I mean, c’mon. Literally hiding them all behind these stupid skills that, for the most part, do nothing but force you to tap a bunch of buttons on every character who has the ability to talk? That’s super frustrating!

And don’t even get me started on how many unnecessary clicks there are in this game? Want to sell something you only have one of? First you have to select it, then you have to select the quantity, then you have to push up to say you want to sell it and then you have to tap the “A” button again to actually sell it. This mechanic is present EVERY TIME you have options, most of which mean nothing beyond choosing yes or no on selling something or saying if you’re reading to move on in the dumb little plot bits. Also, while I’m complaining, the writing is super cliché. There’s no real depth to the characters and they’re about as interesting as a cardboard cutout.

Now, all that being said, the game is still kind of fun. The battle mechanics are fun, the powers are interesting, and it’s got a rather smooth grind (in this case, grinding is the act of completing repetitive tasks in order to level up characters or gear in a game) without being entirely mindless. It’s basically a step up from Final Fantasy (auto-attack to grind and win), so about the same as Pokemon. You need to use the weaknesses of the enemies in order to gain an advantage over them, dealing more damage and preventing them from acting for a turn or two. Some enemies are weak to things you won’t have in your party, so it’s usually best to make sure you have a wide range of magic abilities and physical attacks so you can handle whatever comes your way. There’s a lot of grinding that happens early on, unfortunately, because all of the areas around the towns, the main areas you travel through as you pick up the characters, are really low-leveled. It quickly became pointless to fight those battles and it was frustrating to continuously have to run or to have to remember to equip a character’s special skill that lowered the chance of a random encounter (which I didn’t want in higher leveled areas because those areas were worth grinding in).

What makes the game the most fun for me is how easy it is to pick up and put down. There’s a bit of a long loading time when you start up the game, but that only happens whenever you fully exit the game. On a Switch, the only platform that supports it right now, that’s incredibly easy to avoid. I haven’t left the game in a week, despite only playing for half a dozen hours in that time. It’s a great unwinding game because it requires little input from me beyond actually pressing buttons and, if you get enough distance, the cardboard cut-out quality of the characters can actually be quite amusing. Hell, one of them seems like something straight out of a bad anime and I laughed my butt off as his super-serious and grandiose voice actor butchered his way through the lines. I don’t know if they just didn’t give the voice actors the context of their lines or what, but a lot of the emotive responses from this guy seemed a little out of place.

Aside from gameplay, the best feature is the beautiful pixel art of the game. It is a callback to old 16 bit games, but only in artistic style. The trees blow in the wind, the waves shift the water along the short, and there’s a level of detail to the environment that older games could only dream of. You move in two dimensions the entire game, but the backdrop and scrolling as you move around give an amazing approximation of three dimensions. The sound design is also impeccable. The music fits each scene perfectly and even the sort of off-key voice acting doesn’t negatively impact that.

Fun as it can be, I definitely understand that this kind of grindy game isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea. It’s barely my cup of tea. With a price point of sixty bucks, I wouldn’t really recommend it. If you can get it on sale for forty or less and want something to eat up some time, then I’d recommend it. There are plenty of hours in the game, they are just grindy hours with small steps in the plot that are so far apart that it seems like they just drop the stories between plot points (which they basically do).

Also, don’t let the demo fool you. Going through the initial arcs of the various characters gets old real fast. Just make a bunch of different profiles on your switch and play the demo once for every character. That way, you can experience most of the game without actually paying for it.

So, I heard You Like Goblins

If you enjoy Dungeons and Dragons comics but are not reading Goblins by Tarol Hunt, I honestly don’t really know what to say to you other than “you need to go read this amazing webcomic” repeatedly, until you actually go read it. I’m totally willing to make an attempt at figuring out how to explain why, but I what I really wanted was to give you the chance to bail out now so you can experience the entire saga without my interpretations, analysis, and commentary in the way of an unbiased first read-through. I suggest you go do that because people who enjoy stories and/or Dungeons and Dragons will find something to love.

The first thing you’ll see when you start the comic is a disclaimer explaining the art progression. This comic has been decades in the making, from initial conception and first pages to now it has slowly progressed through a complex and layered story with an end I can’t even fathom. Each page in the story is rife with potential and you’ve never sure when something is foreshadowing or just significant in the moment. As time passes and the story progresses, so much of what came before shows up again as a reference or as the comfortable repetition of a story slowly winding its way toward the climax. Where most stories are depicted as line graphs, straight upward movement through the beats of a story until it reaches its apogee, “THunt’s” Goblins is best thought of in three dimensions. while it shares the same upward climb of all good stories, the path is more circular. Each of the plots, the smaller stories taking place involving different characters, in the comic covers similar ground as they wind their way up a mountain, passing by each other as they go, sometimes without even realizing that their journey is overlapping with someone else’s. In the beginning, you’re not even sure they’re climbing the same mountain. Only by piecing together the various elements of the stories or finding the right bits of foreshadowing can you tell that they are. Or, you know, if you’ve already read it. Then it gets pretty clear.

As far the plot goes, it starts simply enough. There is a village of goblins preparing to be attacked by a party of adventurers. The Goblins are the initial focus and we get a peek into their daily lives that does more to humanize them, so to speak, than we get of the adventuring party when we meet them. While both groups are set up somewhat neutrally, the Goblins get the benefit of more jokes and more attention early on, so they wind up as the sympathetic party initially. It doesn’t hurt that they comic is named after them, either. When we see the adventurers finally get to the village who is ready and waiting for them, it becomes clear that the Goblins are just defending themselves. There’s even a moment where the survivors of the battle call it off because they realize just how horrible this fight is.

From there, as both groups deal with loss and the residual anger of their conflict, they go their separate ways and we begin to see the shape of the larger story being told. All we get is a series of paths unfolding in front of us and hints at the detail of the journey ahead of us. The story slowly builds a cast of characters with their own motivations, alliances, and beliefs about the world, sending them all in separate directions to grow and pursue their parts of the narrative. While the pace is rather slow for a story of this size, an unavoidable result of creating it in comic form, the actual beats of the story are incredibly well placed when you go through the archives. Hunt is an incredible storyteller and his comic is a testament to it.

In addition to his storytelling prowess, he’s also one of the most inventive world creator I’ve seen, given the amount of concrete detail and mechanics you can find in the parts of his world that don’t come from Dungeons and Dragons. He has mixed stuff brought straight from Dungeons and Dragons with stuff he’s adapted from various fantasy settings, and it all fits in seamlessly with what he’s created from scratch. The most impressive part of the story in my eyes is how smoothly he’s fitted every piece of his world together. There are no bumps, no cracks in the road that cause you stumble or doubt as you read. You can clearly see how the world works as a result of fourth wall humor and what we’d call “out of character” comments in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. All of the characters seem to know they’re in a world that obeys a bunch of mechanics you can study and manipulate using numbers or simple declarations. While no one talks about the numerical results of their rolls like they do in some D&D comics and they don’t strictly adhere to the basic rules you’d find in a D&D book, you can easily tell that they’re still in what we’d call a game world. Still, it amazes me constantly how well that knowledge fits in with the world, even when they’re arguing about what skill they’d use to cross a river because they’re making different skill checks to get the same result (as a result of their different attribute scores).

Aside from the petty arguments about how they crossed a river and why someone has such a huge attack bonus despite being at a lower level,  they also cover a range of difficult topics. Hunt doesn’t shy away from the horrific when he details what some of the less-than-savory (and downright fucking awful, goddamn that was a sadistic bastard of a shitstick) characters, but he draws clear lines between what is good and what is evil that are much clearer to the reader than they seem to be to the people in story. At least, to some of them. One of the big themes of the story is the nature of Good and Evil. Like in our world, most of Hunt’s characters believe themselves to be the good guys. Unfortunately for us, they’re often not actually Good. It takes a long time for Hunt to give us his idea of what makes someone Good or Evil, but it’s worth the wait. We’ve been given enough time to see the true natures of tons of characters across the spectrum and we even get to see some characters change alignment. So, when he finally gives us the definition, we can see how all of the characters fit into it and we won’t have to struggle with how Good people can sometimes come into deadly and often angry conflict. In a truly great moment that’s relatively recent in the comic, Hunt also shows us the struggle to define Good and Evil in a way we can consistently rely on and how difficult it can be to actually live up to that definition without abandoning what we’d all call sensible precaution.

Honestly, I started the comic for fantasy battles and Goblin Adventurers, but I’ve stuck with it through the years because of the complex storytelling and the way it covers difficult issues. I don’t have a problem waiting however long it takes for this comic to finish because I know it’s going to be amazing. I hope you enjoy reading it and I hope you get as much out of it as I have. There’s so much it has to give, I can’t imagine anyone coming away from it without something to think about.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 23

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Three days passed without a break in the clouds or the snow. We took shifts holding the keypad outside, hoping enough light made its way down to the tiny solar panel to charge the keypad to the point we could enter the passcode. Unfortunately, not even the light capture array Louis whipped up using all of our mirrors was enough to get it to power on, much less last long enough for us to replace it and enter the code.

While everyone else ate a bland, barely filling meal cobbled together from our dwindling supplies, Natalie, Camille, Lucas, and I discussed our options.

“I think I could whip something up using batteries from one of our lanterns, but I don’t know if I’d be able to guarantee that the lantern or battery would work after that.” Louis picked up the lantern off the ground and switched it off. “I won’t know for sure until I’ve opened everything up and looked, but most rechargeable batteries things aren’t really set up to be used with something other than their specific device.” Lucas shrugged and turned over the lantern in his hands. “Plus, I know I’d at least need to break the casing to get it open.”

“And there’s the question of actually getting power to the keypad.” Natalie held it up for all of us to see. “There’s no screws or detachable parts that would let us access the interior. We’d need to crack the case and then it’s possible that the signal it sends out will be strong enough for something to pick up. I mean, that’s the whole point of having it shielded in the first place. Nothing, or almost nothing, can get out.”

“We don’t really have a lot of options, though.” Camille, with her rifle still over her shoulder, sat in a pile of melting snow she’d tracked in as she called the meeting. “There isn’t much we can hunt around here and even that is only in theory. Tracks don’t last long enough to find and the visibility is so low that it’s pointless to put out traps or set up an ambush.”

Natalie sighed and shook her head. “There aren’t many trees around here. This used to be mostly farmland, so there’s not much left for wildlife to survive on at this point.”

“I still think cracking that thing open is our best bet.” Lucas gestured at the keypad. “Even if there is a signal, the caves should kill it. We’re underground, deep inside a warren of caves, and we’re about as far away as we can get from the nests. Even if that thing was strong enough to be picked up by a satellite on the surface, there’s no way it makes it out of the caves.”

“I still don’t like the risk, not when the sun might come out, soon.” Natalie took a deep breath and then shook her head. “This thing was heavily shielded and buried for a reason.”

“If we don’t see a break in the storm by tomorrow night, we’re going to crack it open and power it ourselves.” I leaned back against the wall of the cave and settled my hands in my lap, trying to suppress the urge to crack my knuckles and pick at my fingernails. “It won’t matter if the snow stops in a few days. Since we’ve been on low rations, we really don’t have much leeway when it comes to missing meals.”

Camille and Lucas nodded in agreement but Natalie just looked at the keypad in her hands. “What if the signal makes it out of the caves.”

“Then we do our jobs.” Camille spoke softly, hands reaching up for her rifle. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we guide people. That’s why we search the ruins of every town we find. That’s what we’re paid to do. Killing bandits makes the world a better place, but that’s not our real job.”

“I don’t think it’ll come to that. Or, I hope it won’t come to that.” I held up my hands to forestall Camille before she got too heated. “I’d like to actively avoid any kind of battle or siege. I don’t want to lose anyone, but need those supplies to survive.” I folded my hands in my lap and smiled reassuringly at my friends. “We’ll have scouts near the entrance with our thermal goggles and a transceiver. If any signal makes it out of the caves, we’ll just grab all the supplies we can and leave while Camille sets up an ambush to kill anything that shows up quickly. Louis, you’ll establish a heavy rear-guard on the sleds, Natalie and I can lead until Camille catches up, and we can let the blizzard cover our tracks. Once we’re far enough away, we can take the time to find somewhere else to rest up like we planned to do here.”

“That’ll take hours, maybe even a day. They’re deep in the cavern and maybe half our people can carry stuff.” Natalie rubber her chin. “We’ve got enough leftover wood that we set aside for repairs to the sleds that we could make a simple cart or two. If we spend tomorrow making carts, then the kids can easily help. That would really save us time…”

I recognized the signs and let Natalie’s wheels turn for a little bit. She was going logistics in her head and she’d have a precise estimate for how much we could get and how long it’d take us to get it in our worst and median case scenarios. While she did that, I turned my attention to Lucas.

“We need a way to power this thing that doesn’t involve taking apart one of our lanterns. Those are too rare to throw one away without trying something else. What are our other options?”

“Well, we could try a chemical reaction.” Lucas rubbed his chin and blankly stared at the lantern. “I think we’ve got medical supplies I could use, if I combined it with some of the battery acid from a hand flashlight.”

“If you can do it using only stuff we can easily replace from the supplies here, go for it.”

“I’ll start getting our gear ready, just in case.” Camille stood up and shook the snow off her pants. “Let me know when I’m needed. After a weapons check, I’m going to make sure the trainees and Nomads know what to do if we’re attacked.”

I nodded and just gestured for her to go as Natalie’s attention snapped back. “We can do it in three to five hours, assuming nothing happened to the supplies. If the stores have been ruined or damaged, we might as well poke the nest to just get it over with. Better than starving to death.”

“Okay, that was a little dark.” Lucas nervously chuckled as he hauled himself to his feet.

“It’s a real possibility since I haven’t gotten a status update on this store room in a couple of years.”

“Still, there’s no need to point it out.” Lucas clutched the lantern in one hand and hobbled off after Camille. “I’m going to do some science. I’ll catch you in the morning.”

After Natalie finished outlining her plan, I told her to go ahead with it and started designing a couple of carts we could make with our leftover wood. They were going to only have three wheels, but that would be enough. As my mind sunk into the details, I was happy to let everything else fade from my attention. Even if we were preparing for the possibility of alerting the monsters by sending out a signal they could pick up, that was still easier for me to consider than the splitting up of my group. At least we could shoot this problem.

The fourth day passed in a blur of work, science reports, preparation, and runners reporting that the snow still hadn’t lessened. The following morning, our fifth in the cave, we ate the last of our supplies and I told Natalie and Lucas to go ahead with cracking the keypad open. Natalie had figured out how to do it without damaging the components inside, so Lucas was mostly there to start and monitor the chemical reaction at her command.

I stood by with the carts and every ambulatory person set up in groups with at least one Wayfinder to guide them through the caves. Camille stood outside with the receiver and a runner waited to bring word to us if anything showed up. After waiting the amount of time Camille requested to get in place, I nodded to Natalie and Lucas who powered up the keypad, hung it back on the wall, and typed in the passcode.

Once the doors were open, I sent the groups in. I watched as the Nomads stumbled as they took in the lush interior of the bunker, clearly caught off guard by how comfortable it looked despite being a glorified stock room. The Wayfinders pulled them along, though, so all of the groups were hard at work collecting supplies when the runner showed up.

“We’ve got a signal, Captain. A strong one.”

“Shit.” I turned to Natalie. “We’ve got a signal. We’re packing up and leaving ASAP.”

“Captain.” Natalie saluted and turned to help gather supplies. I grabbed Lucas and half-carried him as we jogged back to the cavern with all of our injured people. I set Lucas back on his feet and we hurried around, gathering up everyone’s supplies and packing everything that had been left out after breakfast. By the time we’d gotten it all cleaned up and tucked away, the first of the carts showed up.

Lucas organized a human chain to unload the cart and, before the first rumbles of the next cart could be heard, the first cart was on its way back for a second load. The carts moved back and forth steadily for the next four hours. Between cart trips, a few groups of Nomads and Wayfinders would show up, hauling something too big for the carts or too fragile to pile on. During that time, we only got one message from Camille, two hours in, saying there’d been no sightings yet.

When we’d gotten everyone wrapped up, packed, strapped down, and ready to go, it had been just under five hours from the opening of the doors. We’d had no further word from outside, but I led everyone out, heading east toward Chicago. Every Wayfinder had their gun in their hands and there was an injured Wayfinder on each sled, holding a machine gun as we all peered into the snowstorm. Every passing second was horrible as we waited for something to come charging out of the snow at us.

After a minute or two of walking, we found Camille. She was standing next to a tree and, as we walked into view, she waved me over. I signalled to Natalie to keep the group moving and followed Camille into the blizzard. Once the sleds had been swallowed up by the snow, I caught up to her.

“What?”

“We’ve got sixteen confirmed kills. The snow is throwing them off a bit, but we’ve already had two injuries.” Camille grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into a shuffling jog. “They’re not serious, but one of them got tagged during the hit.”

“Tagged?” If Camille hadn’t been pulling me, I’d have frozen in place. “Who?”

“That trainee Natalie’s been teaching.”

“Fuck. Where’d Tiffany get hit?”

“Hand, luckily. We need you there for it, though.”

“Shit. Who has my-”

“I do.” Camille pulled me into a small copse of trees that created a bit of a wind break and, behind the giant snowbank piling up along one side, I found the two injured Wayfinders. One of them was standing on guard, watching the area and doing his best to ignore the woman seated on the ground next to him and the hole punched through the arm of his coat. I tossed the roll of tape from my repair bag to Camille and grabbed the medical bag Camille handed me in exchange.

I bent down next to Tiffany and she smiled up at me, her eyes sharp and brittle. “I did everything Camille said. Took off my glove, tied off at my wrist, and popped my emergency pain killer. Just get it over with.”

I nodded and checked her tourniquet. It was tight enough that her hand was blotchy purple and blue despite the fact that she couldn’t have had her glove off for more than a couple of minutes. “Look away and hold still.”

Tiffany grimaced and shut her eyes. I pulled out a sanitary wipe, swabbed around her wrist at the tourniquet, and then pulled out the bone saw. Swallowing the bile rising in my throat, I quickly cut through her wrist, cleaned up the ragged edges, and made sure to leave enough of a skin flap to sew over the stump. I checked the hand and the stump quickly, looking for the telltale signs of bright red that show how far the tag had spread. Thankfully, it hadn’t gotten further than her palm yet, so she was going to be fine.

Risking the heat loss, I pulled my gloves off and sewed her up. It wasn’t neat, but it just needed to help keep her from bleeding out and hold things in place until we made camp. I’d have to clean it up then, but we’d had more warmth and I could treat the amputation properly. Once that was over, I handed her a bottle with a few more painkillers in it, help her to her feet, and helped her stagger off toward the trail of the sleds.

As I passed Camille, who’d stood over us the entire time and seethed like this was her fault, I shrugged. “I’m just glad it was only a hand. Mind disposing of it?”

“Sure.”

“How many?”

“At least two dozen, so far as I can tell. Standard issue, though. Basic heat-sensing that only picked us up when we started shooting. We tried stabs and cold kills, but there were too many of them for us to handle before they made it to your trail. The rest of the ambush is leading them west.”

“Thank you, Camille.” I hoisted Tiffany’s good arm over my shoulders and pulled her up a bit. “Did you see which one tagged her?”

Camille shook her head. “I didn’t see her. These two were alone and he said it happened too fast for them to be sure. They say they got every single one of the shits, but usually they don’t resort to tagging until they know they’re going to run. Worst case scenario, we’ll have them breathing down our neck all the way to Chicago. Best case, they take the bait and head north.”

“I hope they take the bait. It’d be odd for them to tag someone and then not follow up on it once they’ve regrouped.”

“You can hope for that, if you want.” Camille shouldered her gun and gestured for the other Wayfinder trainee, Ben, to follow her. “I’m going to expect them, though. Just get her back to the sleds and we’ll find out eventually.”

“Stay safe. Please.” I put my free hand on Camille’s shoulder as she turned to leave, but she just kept going, giving me a thumbs-up as she went north, scooping up Tiffany’s hand as she went. Once the snow had swallowed her, I turned my attention back to Tiffany. “Let’s get you someplace you can sleep off the worst of this.” After making sure our gloves were firmly sealed against the weather again, I started double-timing it back to the sled path, silently saying a prayer of thanks to every god I’d ever heard of that it’d only been a hand. If she’d gotten tagged somewhere else, we’d have had to leave her behind.

Give how many people we’d already lost on this trip, we couldn’t afford to lose anyone else if we wanted to stand a chance of making it to Chicago. Nearly half of the Wayfinders who’d started this trip had died and there were probably more people than Lucas thinking seriously about retirement. Unless we were incredibly lucky or no one else died, we wouldn’t make it to the Chicago Enclave alive.

Tabletop Highlight: What to do When You TPK

It finally happened. Because of some mistakes, poor decisions, or just a run of bad luck, you’ve encountered your first TPK. Don’t worry! A Total Party Kill isn’t the end of the world! You have options! But first, as you should do any time you have a serious, potentially irreversible character death or one that felt like a particularly stinky pile of bullshit, take some time away from the table to breath. Thankfully, only characters have died. The players can still play, the DM can still run, and the game can go on. However, it will likely be different. That’s okay, though. Every time anything major happens, the game changes. This will be just one more of those changes.

The first option is generally the easiest. Instead of being killed, the party has been captured and now must escape the clutches of some dreaded foe. Finally, the rogue can put that escape artist skill to use! The paranoid ranger who has a chime of opening hidden on his person is finally vindicated! The barbarian… well, they just hulk out like usual, but it’s still fun! They’re short on gear, don’t have many hit points, and are on a time limit! They need to escape quickly or quietly. If they’re spotted, they need to move fast. If they get stuck, they might need to make some tough choices about who lives and who dies. If they can remain hidden, they might need to find the hole in the guard rotation so they can escape undetected. Maybe they need to talk their way out and suddenly the paladin’s high charisma is good for more than never failing a save. Or maybe the wizard finally gets a chance to show just how capable he can be in a pinch, even without an hour to prepare his spells. No matter what choice you make, it’s sure to make a memorable adventure.

The next easiest option is to have a conversation with your players. There are three options most players take, sometimes individually but usually as a group. First, they might elect to create all new characters who are going to pick up from where their previous characters left off. Sometimes they’re intentionally recovering the remains, sent on a mission to find the now-dead characters by whoever sent the characters in the first place. Sometimes they’re doing their own thing and stumble over the remains of the dead characters and choose to pick up from where they left off. If they don’t do that, another option might be to just create new characters in the same world, doing their own thing, in a space far from where their characters died. Maybe they’ll eventually have to defeat the villain their previous characters fell to at some point, but maybe not. This is a new adventure and that doesn’t mean they need to even inhabit the same world, much less inhabit the same area of said world. The third option is to decide to stop playing. Some players might decide they want to move on to something else, now that the journey their character was on came to a conclusion. That’s totally fine, as long as they’re not departing angrily. If they are, or if all of your players are choosing to abandon ship now that their characters are dead, it might not be a bad idea to look back and assess if you were running a game they wanted to keep playing.

Another option, which would require a lot of work to keep the players from feeling like you just saved them for expediency, would be to have them wake up in a stronghold of an ally. Maybe they were brought back to life or maybe they were rescued, but it must have been for an important reason, whatever the method. Maybe this ally wants to use them for something and figured having a group of adventurers in their debt due to being returned from death would be sufficient motivation to get them to do whatever this ally wants. Maybe it isn’t an ally but a previously neutral NPC who wants the characters to work for them. Perhaps there’s even some kind of curse or geas placed on the characters that forces them to work for this NPC and now they need to not only pursue their given goals but figure out how to escape from the NPC controlling them. This would be a lot of fun because it’d require a lot of clever thinking on the part of the players, though I can understand that it wouldn’t work for every group.

There’s always an undead campaign. It’d work really well if they died fighting a necromancer or failed to disrupt some horrid ritual that would give the souls of everyone mortal on the material plane to some evil god. Maybe something didn’t go entirely wrong and some aspect of who the characters was before their transformation lingers. With the right kind of build-up, you could create an adventure where they either embrace their new undead forms or find a way to undo their transformations. Maybe they find the last divine caster in the area who was saved from the ritual because they were praying within a consecrated area and they can be returned to life. Or maybe they figure out how to save their souls and then take on the new undead overlords before (or maybe after) using a miracle spell to return the world to the way it was before the ritual went off.

There’s always retconjuration, the magic of changing how things happened, but that almost always feels cheap unless they died because they all rolled a bunch of fails in a row while their enemies rolled nothing but natural twenties. I’d recommend against it if you have literally any other option. You could also effectively un-do their death by stripping them of their gear and saying they managed to just barely survive, but they were looted and left for the vultures. Whoever beat them did to them what they’ve likely done to countless other humanoids and monstrous races. That would be a fun spin on things and I’d love to see how a group of players recovers from being stripped of everything that wasn’t hidden. I love creating moments for improvisation and outside-the-box thinking, so I’d really enjoy seeing what my players did in that case. I might do it as a one-off, sometime, just to see.

All of your options pretty much fit into three categories. Figure out how to get the current characters back into play (capture, not-quite-dead, or undead), create new characters (who may or may not encounter the corpses of their former selves), or just stop playing. If you have any ideas of other options, besides what I’ve listed here, I’d love to hear about them! I’m really curious about what other people do in TPK scenarios when they come up.

Under the Gun

Living underneath an orbital defense cannon was interesting. The geostationary satellite cast its shadow elsewhere, most of the day, but Fred always made sure he was outside when it passed through his town. He’d been a child when they first put it in orbit, but he still remembered just how safe he’d felt, knowing it was up there.

Now, he just liked sitting in the shade and marveling at human ingenuity. In two generations, they had gone from launching orbital defense cannons to no longer needing them. They’d become a last, defunct line of defense in a war that was over. Curios from a past that stuck around because they weren’t worth taking down.

Today, as the shadow passed overhead and Fred enjoyed his lunch, something about it seemed a little off to him. As he munched his way through a ham sandwich, he looked at the familiar dark outline about his head. It took him a couple of minutes to figure it out, but he eventually realized that the shadow seemed off because the various shapes in its profile were on the wrong sides.

It looked like someone had just spun the whole thing around. Fred pulled out his cell phone and pulled up the space transit blotter, looking for a reference of a satellite maneuver, like they do during maintenance. Today turned up empty.

After a few more searches left him empty-handed, Fred leaned back and watched the cannon again. It was clearly pointed down at Earth, rather than just rotated around on a different axis. Suddenly, the looming shadow around him wasn’t the constant comfort it once was. It felt like he was sitting, eating a boring sandwich during a break from a dead-end job, right underneath a gun. One shot was all it would take to-